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.
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). 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. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 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?” 5 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. 2 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. 3 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:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 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.” 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.
By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws. 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.
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.
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 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. 8 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. 9 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.”
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.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- 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. ↑
- 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. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49. ↑
- Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
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.
Paul tells Timothy to remain in Ephesus and make sure people don’t teach a different message than the gospel. False teachers were obsessed with myths and genealogies, and they used the Old Testament the wrong way. Find out why we need to know the gospel, why we’re not saved by our obedience, but also why the moral law still matters.
If we lose our focus, bad things can happen.
Our youngest son, Simon, started playing tee-ball recently. It’s not a very competitive league, as far as tee-ball goes. It’s mainly an opportunity for the kids to try to hit pitches and use the tee if they fail, and for them to do some very basic fielding. The kids are just getting their feet wet in baseball and most of them lack skills. They tend to lack focus, too. That’s the case with Simon. He’s just happy to be out doing something. When he gets on base, he hops and dances on it. When he’s fielding, he’s talking to his friends. But I try to teach him to focus on the ball the whole time, even when he’s not batting. I figure it’s only a matter of time before a ball is hit at him when he’s not looking. And if he’s not focused on the right thing, he could get hurt.
The same thing is true when it comes to the things of God. We can easily lose our focus. I assume that we are here today because we want to refocus our lives on God, or perhaps get a better sense of who God is and what he requires of us. But if I asked you what the focus of Christianity is, what would you say it is?
If you asked that question to many different people on the street, you’d probably get a variety of answers. Some non-Christians might think Christianity is all about rules, a set of dos and don’ts—particularly the don’ts. Others might say that Christianity’s focus is on helping the poor and oppressed. Some Christians might say that the focus of Christianity should be on theology. In that case, Christianity is reduced to a set of beliefs. Christians must give mental assent to the right statements about God. Others would say that Christianity is focused on endless Bible studies. And still others would say that Christianity isn’t about beliefs as much as it’s about a relationship with Jesus.
There is truth to all these things. Christianity does involve rules. Christians should help the poor and needy. Christians should have right theological beliefs. Christians should read the Bible. And Christianity is about a right relationship with Jesus. But all these things are not equal, and it’s easy to focus on only one of them. Sometimes people focus only on the rules, or they focus only on studying obscure passages in the Bible, or they focus only on certain theological teachings. If we lose our focus on the core of Christianity, which is Jesus Christ himself, bad things will happen. Our faith will be distorted. It won’t be healthy.
That was certainly the apostle Paul’s concern. He wrote the letter of 1 Timothy to a younger associate, warning him that false teachers were trying to teach something different than what Paul taught. Their teaching was unproductive and unhealthy. It was even destructive. So, Paul told Timothy to hold fast to the truth, and to teach it in love.
We’ll see this today as we look at 1 Timothy 1:3–11. Last week, we started to look at 1 Timothy and I gave an introduction to the book. If you missed that message, you can find it online. Today, we’re moving ahead into the body of the letter. Let’s first read verses 3–7:
3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. 5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
We don’t know where Paul was when he wrote this letter. He was headed to the province of Macedonia, where the city of Thessalonica was located. But he told Timothy to stay in the city of Ephesus. Timothy wasn’t the pastor of the church in Ephesus, but he was an apostolic delegate. He was there to help a relatively new church maintain its health.
Paul told Timothy to tell “certain persons” not to teach a different theology. “Doctrine” simply means teaching. Paul must have had in mind a definite group of false teachers, people who were off track in what they were teaching. They might not have been the pastors of the church, but they were leading others astray.
It’s hard to know exactly what these people were teaching, because Paul doesn’t get very specific, probably because he had already told Timothy these things. When we read letters in the New Testament, sometimes we have to do something called mirror reading. It’s like when you hear someone talking on the phone. You only hear one side of the conversation, but based on what you hear, you can guess what the other person is saying.
The false teachers were focusing on myths and genealogies. We’ll also see that they were using the law that God gave to Israel at Mount Sinai in a wrong way. So, these teachers were likely Jewish Christians.
Some Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament became very fanciful. When I was studying a bit about Islam, I found out that some Jewish myths even made their way into the Qur’an. One fanciful Jewish story, which is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish writings from after the time of Jesus, concerns what happened at Mount Sinai. According to the Bible, after God rescued Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them to Mount Sinai, where he made a covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. In the Talmud, the story becomes something rather interesting: God had searched the nations for one that would accept his covenant. But only Israel did. And they accepted his covenant because God lifted Mount Sinai over the Israelites, threatening to drop it on them if they did not accept his offer. One rabbi is quoted as saying, “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over Israel like a cask and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, then there is where your grave will be.’”
This is obviously legendary material. It’s a myth. But this myth made its way into a few passages in the Qur’an (2.63, 93; 4.154; 7.171), which shows that the Qur’an has historical errors and is likely based on what Muhammad thought the Jewish Scriptures actually taught.
There was also a tendency in Judaism to fill in the supposed “gaps” of the Old Testament, particularly in genealogies. There’s a document called The Book of Jubilees, probably written in the second century BC, which chronicles the time between the creation of the world and the giving of the law. Among other things, it says that Adam and Eve had many children not mentioned in the Bible, and it gives their names, indicating who married whom.
All of this may seem strange to us, but there is a tendency even in Christianity for people to try search the genealogies of the Old Testament for some hidden wisdom, or to become obsessed with figuring out timelines. This can be seen in the book called The Prayer of Jabez, which builds a whole theology on one verse tucked away in the genealogies at the beginning of 1 Chronicles. First Chronicles 4:10 reports that Jabez prayed, “‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.”
Now, that is what the Bible says. But what is descriptive in the Bible is not always prescriptive. God does not always promise to “enlarge our borders.” But people who didn’t know the Bible well touted this prayer as the key to God’s blessings.
There is also a tendency in some circles of Christianity to focus almost entirely on certain doctrines, particularly end times issues. Usually these people come up with fanciful and fairly ridiculous readings of the book of Revelation or perhaps Daniel, readings not based on carefully study of history or the original languages. Their readings tend to sound more like science fiction or fantasy.
We’ll learn a bit more about what these false teachers were promoting as we continue to study this book. What matters is that Paul wanted Timothy to make sure that the church didn’t go off the rails.
In verse 5, Paul states his goal: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He and Timothy had good motives and they wanted the Christians in Ephesus to experience love, pure hearts, good consciences, and a sincere faith. The greatest command is to love God with all our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. This love fulfills the law (Matt. 22:34–40; Rom. 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). This love is at the core of Christianity, and it’s likely that the false teachers were missing it.
Paul also says that the false teachers taught in vain. They claimed to be experts in the law, but they didn’t really understand it. Yet they made “confident assertions” about the law. And that leads us to the next paragraph. Let’s read verses 8–11.
8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
The false teachers were using the law unlawfully. That’s ironic, isn’t it? The law is not for the righteous, but for the lawless. The law has a right and a wrong use.
Paul has in mind the law given to Israel. We know that because his vice list summarizes most of the Ten Commandments. We’ll explore that in just a moment.
In the rest of Paul’s writings, he says that the Old Testament law had a limited use. In the book of Galatians, he said that the law had held people captive until the time of Christ. This is what he says:
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Gal. 3:23–26).
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one ever became acceptable to God through obedience to the law, because no one other than Jesus obeyed it perfectly. Part of the law’s intent was to reveal how sinful we are.
The topic of the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai is complex and it is often misunderstood. I’ll try to make it as simple as I can.
Before we talk about the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai, we should know that there is an objective, universal, eternal moral law. Murder is always wrong, for example. This isn’t said in very explicit terms in the Bible, but it is presupposed. The nations that did not receive the law are still held accountable for their sins, which means there must be some moral or natural law that they transgressed.
But the law in the Old Testament, which we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, was given to Israel, God’s covenant people. This law was given only for a limited period of time, though that period of time was over a thousand years. And the law was given for limited purposes.
One purpose of the law was to give specific descriptions of how the moral law should be employed in that particular, ancient society. So, the law taught general moral principles (particularly the Ten Commandment) and applied them in specific ways to that specific time, place, and culture. We can see that in the many specific laws about paying for damages caused to a neighbor’s property (for example, Exod. 21:33–22:15).
Another purpose of the law was to teach certain principles, such that sin is such a serious crime that it deserves death. Sin is rebellion against God. It’s a failure to love, trust, and obey God. The law also taught that sinners can find atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice. When animals were slaughtered to pay for the penalties of sin, the idea was that the sins of the people were transferred to those animals, who died in place of sinners. Certain laws provided pictures of what separation from idolatrous people would look like. They were pictures of having different practices. That’s why we there are dietary restrictions and laws regarding not wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, or not sowing two kinds of seeds in one field. Israel was learning how to make distinctions, and to be separate from the nations that surrounded them, because those nations worshiped false gods.
And a third purpose of the law was to reveal how sinful humans are. The law showed Israel that they did not measure up to God’s standards.
But here’s the key thing: we are not saved by obeying the law. No one is. That’s because we don’t obey perfectly. The Israelites failed, time and again, to keep the law. And if we were in ancient Israel, we would have failed, too. So, we do not become right in God’s eyes by first obeying his law. If that were the case, we would never have a right relationship with God.
Even after salvation, we are not bound by the law given to Israel. We are bound by the “law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2). Jesus came to fulfill the law (Matt. 5:17–18). We must understand the law through the lens of Jesus’ fulfillment of the law. That’s why we don’t offer up animal sacrifices—Jesus is the only sacrifice for sin ever needed. That’s why we don’t have to worry about which animals we eat, or whether we’re wearing a poly-cotton blend. The moral principles of the law are still in place, because they are part of God’s unchanging, universal, eternal moral law. But we can’t simply read a law in the Old Testament and apply it to our lives without first thinking about how it is understood in the light of Christ.
Does that mean we can do whatever we please? No. Certain things are always wrong and continue to be wrong for Christians. Look again at that vice list in verses 9 and 10. This vice list shows us some things that are still wrong. It is always wrong to be “lawless and disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners, . . . unholy and profane, . . . those who strike their fathers and mothers, . . . murderers, . . . sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and [to do] whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”
Why are these things wrong?
Some people might conclude that God gives us arbitrary rules. Think again of sports. A lot of rules in sports are fairly arbitrary. Why must a football team advance ten yards to get a first down? Why not nine or eleven? Why do they only get four downs to get those ten yards, instead of just three or perhaps five? There’s no great reason. Them’s just the rules. Why three strikes and four balls? There’s really no great reason. It’s just that there needed to be some number that wouldn’t make the game too easy or too hard. Are God’s rules arbitrary? No. There are reasons for them.
Some people assume that if there is some eternal moral law, then that law is greater than God, because even he is bound by it. That’s something captured in a philosophical dilemma called the “Euthyphro dilemma.” The idea is that some things are morally right either because God says them, or because the moral law exists outside of God. If the first option is right, then God could say that murder was morally good. If the second option is right, then the moral law is greater than God.
But there’s a third option. God’s moral law is a reflection of who he is. God says, “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). God’s laws can also be viewed as something like an instruction manual. God is the creator of life. He designed things to function in certain ways. He knows how his creation works best. He doesn’t give laws to oppress us or rob us of joy. His laws are for our good. And if we love God, we will obey his commandments. That’s why the apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2–3).
We were made to know, love, trust, worship, and represent God. The first four of the Ten Commandments tell us something about how to relate to God: We should have no other Gods, we shouldn’t have any false gods, or idols, in our lives, we should take God’s name seriously, and we should find our rest in Jesus, his Son (Exod. 20:3–11, interpreted in the light of Christ). So, to be “disobedient, . . . ungodly and sinners” is always wrong. When we rebel against God, we are rejecting the very best “thing” there is, God himself. It’s like trying to fight gravity. It’s foolish and harmful.
The fifth commandment is to honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Striking parents or disobeying them is wrong because God designed the family as the basic building block of society and parents are the authorities in the family. Families precede cities and governments and businesses. That’s why Christians care so much about the structure of the family.
Parents were also designed to point us toward a greater Father. Strange as it may seem, God could have designed life so that people reproduced asexually, so that only one parent was needed, or he could have created a world in which no reproduction was necessary. He could have created one generation of a billion people at once, who each lived for thousands of years. Or he could create people out of nothing every once in a while. But he created parents who could create children. And this is a shadow of the Father-Son relationship in the Trinity, and of the Father-children relationship of God and his people. Those who dishonor their parents are more likely to dishonor God.
The sixth commandment is against murder (Exod. 20:13). Murder is wrong because it’s killing someone made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5–6). To kill an innocent person is a great insult to God, because human beings are the height of his creation.
The seventh commandment is against adultery (Exod. 20:14). Strictly speaking, that prohibits a man from having sex with another man’s wife. But it was interpreted more broadly to prohibit any sex outside of marriage, which is the union of one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7; Eph. 5:31). Jesus even interprets lust as a violation of this commandment (Matt. 5:27–28).
Why is any form of sexual immorality, including homosexual activity, wrong? Are these just arbitrary commandments designed to take away fun? No. God created sex, and he created it to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage. God’s design for marriage is found in Genesis 2, before sin entered into the world and caused all kinds of disordered sexual desires. The definition of marriage in Genesis 2 is also affirmed by Jesus (Matt. 19:5; Mark 10:7). The reason why God’s laws regarding sex and marriage are so serious is because God designed both to be a shadow of the exclusive, faithful, relationship of God and his people (Eph. 5:31–32). In a marriage two parties who are different come together. In the marriage of God and his people, it’s two different parties. It’s not God and God, or humans and humans. It’s God and human beings. Or, if you like, it’s the God-man, Jesus Christ, and his people. But what matters is that Jesus is God, and he is united to mere human beings. That is best reflected in a heterosexual relationship.
Of course, I realize that what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is rejected by most Americans today. But just because a majority of people hold an opinion doesn’t mean that opinion is right. It’s often the case that what is right is rejected by many people.
The passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality are rather clear. Revisionist scholars try to say that those passages are really about something other than committed, consensual homosexual unions that we find today. They say they are about men dominating teenage boys, which certainly was common in the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and Paul. They say those passages really are about some strange sexual rites performed at pagan temples. They say these passages really prohibit excessive lust. But the passages don’t discuss these issues. Most of the passages are rooted in God’s design for men and women, and they often echo Genesis 1 and 2. (The language of Rom. 1:18–23, which precedes descriptions of homosexual activity in Rom. 1:24–27, echoes Genesis 1:26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which also includes homosexuality in a vice list, comes before a quotation of Gen. 2:24 in 1 Cor. 6:16.)
If the biblical prohibitions in the Bible are regarded as arbitrary, it’s hard to provide a reason why there can’t be three people in a relationship instead of two, or why two brothers or two sisters couldn’t be in a sexual relationship. Yet most reasonable people realize there are boundaries to sexual relationships. So, why not trust that the boundaries that God has drawn are the right ones?
The fact is that most of us are sexual sinners. Even if we have never had sex, or have only had sex with our spouses, we have likely sinned or coveted another person’s husband or wife. The Bible focuses a lot more on heterosexual sin than homosexual sin. And there is hope for heterosexual and homosexual sinners. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9–11).
Any sinner can be made right with God. The question is whether that person will turn to God and away from sin. Not one of us will be perfect in this life. We will struggle with sin even after becoming Christians. Remember, we’re not saved from condemnation because of our perfect obedience. But salvation comes to those who trust in Jesus, and that requires repentance, a turning away from our old ways.
Getting back to Paul’s vice list in 1 Timothy, he makes reference to the eighth commandment, which is against stealing (Exod. 20:15). But he does that by mentioning “enslavers,” those who kidnap people and make them slaves or sell them as slaves. Stealing someone else’s property is wrong, because it harms that person. It elevates things above people. But this goes further: stealing a person is wrong because it treats a person as a thing. Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century, said, “A kidnapper also is a thief; but he is, moreover, a thief who steals the very most excellent thing that exists upon the earth.”
Some people have claimed that the Bible doesn’t say anything against slavery. But that’s not true. This verse says otherwise. So does the book of Philemon. But we’ll talk more about slavery when we get to 1 Timothy 6:1–2.
Paul also references the ninth commandment, which is against bearing false witness against one’s neighbor (Exod. 20:16). Paul says “liars, perjurers,” which deals both with legal false witness as well as a broader category of deceit. God is a God of truth and Jesus himself is the truth (John 14:6). So, lies are contrary to God and his ways.
Paul doesn’t mention the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (Exod. 20:17), but he does give a blanket statement that sinners are those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”
The word “sound” means “healthy.” Sins aren’t healthy. Right theology leads to health. Bad theology leads to disaster.
We can be unhealthy by believing false things about God. We can be unhealthy when we focus too much on true things. When we get obsessed with minor doctrines and make those ultimate priorities, we can quickly become unhealthy. We shouldn’t major on minors and minor on majors.
The center of Christianity is the gospel, the good news that God saves sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God who also became a human being. The gospel is healthy, because it restores us to spiritual health. And it glorifies God because God gets all the credit for saving sinful wretches like you and me. If we were saved by our own obedience, we would be glorified. But the gospel says that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The gospel says that only Jesus lived the perfect life (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22), yet he died to pay for our sins. He is the true substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. We must never forget that we are not saved by our knowledge, our obedience, our goodness, or our strength. No, Jesus “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).
Today, I urge us to know and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus brings true, eternal health. Christianity involves knowing right things about God, but it’s more than that. It is about a relationship with Jesus. If we truly know Jesus, we will know facts about him, and we will live a life that is pleasing to him. That means turning from sin and embracing God’s moral law, not as a means of earning God’s favor or maintaining a relationship with him. No, our standing with God is based on whether we trust Jesus or not. But if you love Jesus, you will keep his commandments, and you will find that they are not burdensome, but they are intended for your good.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This is quoted in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2013), 233. It apparently comes from section BB of Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011). ↑
- Bruce Wilkinson, The Prayer of Jabez (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2000). ↑
- “In line with Pauline thought elsewhere, but not expressed here, the law functions to reveal sin (Rom 3:20; 5:13; 7:7–12; 1 Cor 15:56; Gal 3:19). The law is good (Rom 7:7, 12, 14; 3:31), but human sin has made it ineffectual (Rom 7:13–25; 8:3) because it could not empower a person to follow the law. The righteous have outgrown the law (Rom 7:1–4; Gal 3:19, 23–4:7), have died to it (Rom 7:6; Gal 2:19), and are now captive to the law of Christ (Rom 7:4–6, 22, 25; 8:2, 7), slaves of righteousness (Rom 6:18) and of God (Rom 6:22; Gal 2:19), not under the law but under grace (Rom 6:14).” William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 34. ↑
- Charles Duke Yonge with Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 617. ↑
- MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell made that claim in 2013. See Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible, NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. ↑
I want us to imagine a hypothetical story, a parable, if you will. Imagine an industrial town somewhere in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt. It’s a town that had a once-thriving industry (let’s say it was making widgets) that has dried up decades ago, kind of like Brockton’s shoe industry. And in this town, there was a boy. This boy wasn’t famous growing up. He didn’t come from a rich family. He wasn’t a star athlete. But he was smart. And he went off to a good college, and then law school, and he then became a lawyer for a firm in another state. Eventually, he became a U.S. Senator in that other state, so he still had family in his hometown. He still had some hometown connections. Eventually he ran for President and he won the election.
At the beginning of his presidency it’s announced that he’s going to return to his hometown to make a speech there. He’s going to make that speech in the old, abandoned widget factory. As you can imagine, the people in his hometown get excited. Pretty soon, there’s talk about how the president’s visit means the town is likely to get a federal grant. Some old factory and mill towns across America have received this grant to renovate and repurpose old factories and mills, so they can be used as apartments, office spaces, and studios. (This has happened in Waltham and Beverly, with the old Waltham Watch and United Shoe buildings, respectively.) Because this president has been talking about the need to put America back to work, and because of his trip to his old hometown, and because of the location of the speech, everyone assumes he is going to announce that this town is going to receive a grant.
The president begins his speech with talk about the old days when people in America worked hard and had good jobs. He talks a bit about the old widget factory. Everyone is waiting for the moment when he gets to that grant. “How much money is the federal government going to spend on us?”, they think. Then the president starts to talk about how Americans are lazy and how workers overseas do better work. He says it’s time for Americans to be tougher, to be more disciplined, to work harder. So, instead of announcing a grant, he talks about how his administration is going to reform entitlement spending, cutting back unemployment benefits and cracking down on Social Security fraud. For the sake of this story, let’s assume what the president says is true, and what he proposes is good.
Imagine the reaction of the people. At first, they were thrilled that the local boy made good was coming to town. They assumed they would receive something good. But then when they hear something they don’t want to hear, they are enraged. They boo the president. Someone starts leading a chant: “Not our president! Not our president!” The Secret Service agents at the event get nervous and they cut things short, escorting the president out of the factory before things turn worse.
Now, why do I tell that story? That’s kind of what happens in the passage that we’re going to look at today. I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Luke over the last two months and today we come to Luke 4:14–30. Here, we see what happens when Jesus teaches in his own hometown of Nazareth.
Before we start, I want to give us a little bit of context. Two weeks ago, we saw that Jesus was baptized and then anointed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). At that time, God the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” We Christians believe that there is one God, who is triune. In other words, we believe that God is one Being in three Persons. Here, God the Father blesses God the Son, upon whom God the Holy Spirit comes, giving him power. Jesus has always been the Son of God, but over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature, also becoming a human being. And, as a human being, he was given the Holy Spirit to guide and empower him. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the long-awaited King of Israel who will reign forever.
That bit of information is important to know as we look at today’s passage. Let’s start by reading the first two verses, verses 14 and 15:
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke is giving us a summary statement. Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went to the region of Galilee, where he had grown up. People heard about his teaching in synagogues and he was glorified by them. This probably means that Jesus’ teaching brought him a certain level of fame. The people started to hear about how Jesus was a great teacher and those who heard him marveled at his teaching.
Then, after giving us that statement, Luke tells us about a particular time when Jesus taught in a synagogue.
Before we look at that, I want to make just a brief note on synagogues. Synagogues probably emerged while the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, over five hundred years earlier. A synagogue was really a gathering of people, not so much a building. In some towns, the people probably gathered in someone’s home. Synagogue meetings usually centered on Scripture readings and teaching. Any qualified Jewish man might be invited to teach. You might remember that in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was able to testify to Jesus while visiting different synagogues in the Roman Empire (Acts 13:13–43; 14:1; 17:1–3, 10–12, 16–17; 18:1–4, 19; 19:8).
While Jesus was in his hometown synagogue, he was able to read from Scripture and teach. Let’s read the first part of what happens. We’ll read verses 16–22:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. “In the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a small agricultural village with a spring and a population of approximately 400 to 500 people.” Such a small town wouldn’t have its own synagogue building. They also probably wouldn’t have had a complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. In that time, Scripture wasn’t printed in one nicely-bound book. Books of the Bible were written on scrolls. So, a scroll is given to Jesus.
Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, and he locates a passage that he wanted the people of synagogue to hear. He reads the first verse of Isaiah 61 and part of the second verse. It appears that Jesus may have skipped a line that’s in verse 1 (“he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”) and added a verse from Isaiah 58:6 (“to set at liberty those who are oppressed”). People used quotations a bit more freely back then. What’s important is that Jesus chose this passage for a purpose.
Toward the end of his book, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant upon whom God will put the Holy Spirit. This servant will bring forth justice (Isa. 42:1, 3). He will be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32). His mission was “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:7). Most importantly, this servant would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). In other words, he would die for the sins of his people. And “with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Though this servant never sinned (Isa. 53:9), he died in place of our sins. He would “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).
So, Isaiah promises a time of comfort and salvation, of rescue for the hurting and the oppressed. Isaiah also contains a description of a new creation, where there will be no more crying (Isa. 65:17–19) and no more death (Isa. 25:6–9).
The passage that Jesus read recalls those good promises. It’s therefore understandable that after he read it, the crowd was waiting for him to say something. That’s why “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They were waiting for Jesus to tell them something about that passage. Perhaps they were wondering when the “good news” that Isaiah promised would come.
Jesus probably said more than Luke reports, but we’re given only one sentence: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I’m sure the crowd didn’t fully understand what Jesus meant. Perhaps they thought Jesus was telling them that someone else would bring this liberty, this freedom, the Lord’s favor. But what Jesus meant was that he is the one who has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. He is the one who proclaims the gospel, which means “good news.” But more than that, Jesus is the one who brings about liberty and healing. He is the one who fulfills the great promises of the Old Testament. When you stop and think about it, his claims are amazing. He is the one who will make everything right in this broken world.
It’s not clear how much the crowd understood, but they liked what they heard. Luke says, “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” Jesus spoke a message of grace. The liberation and healing that he said had been fulfilled was not something that God owed to anyone. We aren’t entitled to freedom and good health. But God gives us salvation through his Son. That is why salvation is by grace alone. It is not something we deserve or can earn. The crowd probably wasn’t thinking of salvation the way that you and I think of it. They might have thought of physical healing of blind people and others who had disabilities. They might have thought about being delivered from the oppression of the Roman Empire, which occupied their land. But whatever they understood, they were impressed by Jesus.
Then they say, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” It’s not clear what they mean. It is usually understood to mean that they are doubting whether Jesus could be the fulfillment of the passage of Scripture he read. They liked the idea that the promised liberation and healing had come, but then they thought about it and said, “Wait a minute, Jesus is Joseph’s son. Maybe he’s wrong?” Or perhaps they realized that Jesus was claiming to the be God’s agent of salvation, and they thought, “Hey, how could Joey Carpenter’s son be the Messiah? I mean, have you seen Joey’s work? I could make better tables than that guy!” In other words, they’re doubting that a small-town guy could be the key to making everything right in the world.
That may be what they thought, but there’s another way of reading their question. When they ask, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they may have been thinking something like, “Wait a minute, if Jesus has something to do with this liberation, this year of the Lord’s favor, this healing, and if he’s Joey Carpenter’s son, then that’s good news for us. Jesus is from Nazareth. If he can bring God’s favor to Israel, how much more are we going to receive all these good things? We’re definitely in!” They’re like the people in that story I used at the beginning of the sermon. The hometown folks thought the president, a hometown hero, would bring home the bacon. Little did they know they were going to be grilled.
The people in this synagogue in Nazareth might have thought that Jesus would bring them special favor. After all, Jesus’ message, which is Isaiah’s message, sounded a lot like the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to occur every fifty years. Leviticus 25:10 says, “you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.” Nazareth was a poor town. They might have thought that Jesus was promising them that they could be released from their debts and poverty.
Either reading is possible, and either reading makes sense of what Jesus says next. Let’s read verses 23–27:
23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Depending on whether we think these people are skeptical or hopeful, the proverb “Physician, heal yourself” could mean one of two things. If they were skeptical, they might be saying, “Prove it to us!” If someone who was obese and sounded like he smoked five packs a day claimed to be a doctor, you might say, “If you’re a physician, heal yourself.” That could be why the people wanted Jesus to perform the miracles they heard he performed in Capernaum. In other words, they might not have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, or Christ. They might have wanted to see signs and wonders that authenticated his message.
But if they were hopeful that Jesus would first bring good things to his hometown, that same proverb could mean, “If you’re a good doctor, you make sure that you and your family are particularly healthy.” They might have been pleading for special favors. “Jesus, you’re one of us. Why are doing those miracles in Capernaum? Take care of your own first.”
Either way, Jesus won’t have it. He won’t give to those who reject him, and he can’t be manipulated. So, he says, “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” That could be true because people don’t believe a regular “Joey from the block” could be a prophet. Or it could be true because people think that their homeboys shouldn’t say hard things, which the prophets often spoke.
Jesus then reminds the crowd of what happened in the Old Testament. Some eight hundred years earlier, there were two prophets in Israel, Elijah and Elisha. They were called to turn Israel back to God and away from worshiping false gods. They served during a time when Israel was led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, both infamous for being wicked rulers. During Elijah’s day, there was a great famine in Israel. That famine was a judgment on Israel’s idolatry. Jesus reminds the crowd that Elijah didn’t go to any widows in Israel during that time, even though there were many in Israel. No, Elijah was sent out of Israel to the coastlands, to Gentile territory. In Zarephath, which was between Tyre and Sidon, he miraculously provided flour and oil for a widow and he raised her son back to life (1 Kgs. 17:8–24).
Elisha, Elijah’s successor, healed and cleansed Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). Syria was Israel’s enemy. Though there were many lepers in Elisha’s day, he only healed Naaman.
Jesus’ point is that Gentiles often exhibited more faith when they encountered God’s prophets than the Israelites did. The Israelites often didn’t listen to the prophets. The prophets said hard truths. They said, “You’ve turned away from God. You’re worshiping fake gods and you’re doing wrong. Turn back to God.” The people didn’t want to change, so they rejected the prophets. And because of the people’s continual rejection of God, they were not healed. But God healed Gentiles, at least those who showed some glimmer of faith.
The hint is that just because these people are from Jesus’ hometown, and just because they are Jews, doesn’t mean they will automatically receive God’s favor. God will not be manipulated. He wants people to love, trust, and obey him. And if people continually reject him, he will give his favor to others.
So, how will the people respond? They seemed to like what Jesus said at first. Will they like what Jesus says now? Let’s see by reading verses 28–30:
28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
The people obviously didn’t like what they heard. They understood what Jesus was getting at. He was hinting that if they didn’t respond rightly to him, they would be like the sinful Israelites of Elijah’s day. But more than that, they probably hated the notion that Gentiles would receive God’s favor. The Jews thought of themselves as God’s treasured possession. They thought they were automatically part of God’s kingdom. They assumed that just because of their biological heritage, they would receive God’s blessings.
But God doesn’t work that way. He calls a people to himself, and these people will come from all nations, tribes, and tongues (Rev. 5:9). There are no people who automatically receive God’s blessings and favor. There are no people who are born into God’s kingdom. No, we must be changed by God. We must be born again (John 3:1–8). We must turn from sinning and making created things our functional gods, and we must turn in faith to the one true God.
But these people didn’t care about all of that. All they knew was that Jesus was saying something they didn’t to hear. And their marvel turned to rage. They were so filled with wrath that they tried to kill Jesus. And, somehow, he escaped from them because it wasn’t yet his time to die.
Before we think about how this passage applies to us, I just want to point out what this passage says about human nature. The passage starts with Jesus being allowed to teach in a synagogue. The crowd had heard about his teaching in other places and they had some respect for him. When he read Scripture and said it was fulfilled, the people at first had a positive reaction. But then when Jesus said something they didn’t like, they flipped. This is not what rational people do. But when people hear things they don’t like, even if they’re true, they often act in irrational ways. I think that’s particularly true when it comes to religion. It’s probably because we’re talking about deep, ultimate matters and we’re talking about cherished traditions and beliefs. I have heard stories about people in churches acting in the most ugly ways when they don’t get they’re way. And I’ve seen some of this myself. I suppose this affirms what the Bible says about sin. The power of sin and evil is irrational. When we turn from God, our minds and our hearts are darkened and we can’t think and desire and act rightly.
That’s important to know, because today people tend to think that if they are hurt or feel offended—if they hear something they don’t want to hear—that they are in the right and the one who has spoken, hurt, and offended is wrong. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the truth hurts. That doesn’t mean telling the truth is wrong.
This episode demonstrates how the truth can create opposition. It shows how we all can resist the truth and become enraged by it. One of the reasons I’m a Christian is because the Bible makes so much sense of the human condition. It’s like holding a mirror up to our world and seeing just how beautiful and also how broken it can be.
Well, now that we’ve gone through this passage, what should we do? How does it apply to us?
First, we should know who Jesus is. According to this passage, Jesus is a teacher, a prophet, and the anointed servant of Isaiah. It’s important to see that while Luke emphasizes Jesus’ teaching, he’s much more than a teacher. He’s the one who makes his teaching possible. He’s not just the one who announces the year of the Lord’s favor, but he is able to bring about freedom, healing, and restoration. In other words, he is more than just a man. He is also God. And he’s our Savior.
We also see that Jesus was a controversial figure. People didn’t always respond to him favorably. After Jesus was born, a man named Simeon told Jesus’ mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . , so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Jesus revealed the secret thoughts of these people in Nazareth, and their rejection of Jesus would cause their own fall.
Jesus was also a man who knew what it was like to be rejected, to be hated. People wanted to kill him. Eventually, they did. Truly, Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus was hated because he told the truth. If you tell the truth, there may be people who turn on you. If you share the gospel with someone, people might at first like the idea of Jesus paying for their sins. But if you say that Jesus is the only Savior, and that if people don’t trust Jesus and follow him, they will go to hell, don’t be surprised if people get angry at you. They first got angry at Jesus.
Second, we should know what Jesus came to do. In part, Jesus came to teach and to proclaim a message of good news. However, there is some debate about what Jesus meant when he said he came
to proclaim good news to the poor. . . .
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Some people take this quite literally. They believe that Jesus came to relieve the poor, to give freedom to the oppressed, and to heal those who are disabled. And some people think that since that was Jesus’ mission, that should be the primary mission of the church.
If we’re going to understand Jesus’ mission during his first coming, and if we’re going to understand the mission of the church, we have to think more carefully. First, we should realize that Jesus didn’t free everyone in Israel from poverty. Yes, he miraculously fed thousands of people on a couple of occasions, but that didn’t solve the problem of poverty. Second, we should realize that he didn’t come to heal all disabilities. Yes, he healed at least a couple of blind people (for example, Luke 18:35–43), but he didn’t solve the problem of blindness. Third, he didn’t literally set prisoners free. There’s no account of Jesus leading a jailbreak or bailing someone out of prison. Fourth, Jesus didn’t lead a political revolution “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
So, what does this passage mean? I think the best way to understand it is to see that it refers to spiritual realities. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor in spirit, those who realize that they are sinners and can’t save themselves. In order to be reconciled to God, you first need to know how much you’ve been a rebel against him and how much you must rely on his grace, the way a beggar relies on people to give him a handout. Jesus came to proclaim liberty to those who had been held captive by the power of sin. That power enslaves us, leading us to do things we know are not right. Jesus came to give us spiritual sight, so that we can see the truth. Those who can’t see who Jesus truly is remain spiritually blinded. Jesus came to bring freedom to those oppressed by Satan, the devil (Luke 13:16).
The fact that Jesus came to deliver people from spiritual poverty and oppression doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the physical needs of others. We should. God cares about our bodies, our hunger, and our circumstances. If we’re going to care about other people, we should care about those things, too. But if we care about relieving suffering, we should first care about relieving eternal suffering. It would do no good to help someone out of poverty in this life only. What we all need most is to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven for our sins, and to be united to Jesus, the only Savior. Christians should care about both poverty and souls.
And, when you think about it, the gospel is truly good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. To the poor, it says, “You won’t always be poor. In eternity, you will never lack for anything.” To the slaves and the prisoners, it says, “You are in chains or behind bars now, but that won’t always be the case. Hang on. Freedom is coming in the new creation.” To the blind or the disabled, it says, “You will receive a resurrected body in eternity. Then, you will be able to see. You will be able to walk and run. Your body will be perfectly healthy, and it will never die.” The gospel has given many people in dire circumstances great hope. God has not promised to relieve all pain and suffering in this life, even for his children. But he has promised that the pain and suffering of his children is temporary.
Third, we should respond rightly to Jesus. What’s interesting is that Jesus stops his quote of Isaiah 61 at “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The next line in Isaiah is “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). The first time that Jesus came, he did not come to bring a day of vengeance, but a day of salvation. However, we only have so long to respond to Jesus. After we die, there will be judgment (Heb. 9:27). When Jesus comes a second time, everyone who has ever lived will be judged. Those who hate Jesus or who are apathetic to Jesus will be condemned. They will be cast out of God’s creation. They will experience eternal torment. The same is true of those who try to manipulate Jesus to their own ends, those who demand that Jesus provide all kinds of signs for them. But those who trust Jesus, who realize their own spiritual poverty, who sense that they have been imprisoned by sin and oppressed by evil forces, who have realized they were blind to the truth—those people will be saved. They will live with Jesus forever in a restored, renewed, perfected world. They will experience endless years of the Lord’s favor.
If you are not trusting in Jesus today, I would urge you to put your faith in him. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.
Let us see that Jesus proclaimed good news and that he made that good news possible. Let’s turn to him in faith. And let’s bring good news to the physically and spiritually poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Lamoine F. Devries, “Nazareth,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 4: 240. ↑
The first episode of Jesus’ public ministry that we find in Luke’s Gospel is an account of him teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus’ message ultimately produces a hostile reaction. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 4:14-30.
“Sin and “temptation” are very religious words. We hear them in church. We read them in the Bible and in Christian books. But outside of religious circles, we don’t hear those words a lot. When we do hear them, they are used in trivial ways. People may talk about “sinfully decadent” desserts. “Oh, that chocolate cake was sinfully decadent.” And people often talk of temptation only in the context of diets. “I’ve been on a diet since the start of the year, but I was really tempted by that sinfully decadent cake.”
In general, our culture doesn’t have a serious view of sin and temptation.
But every once in a while, we all see sin for what it is. Over the last several months, many victims of sexual abuse have been coming forward. And there has been a great outrage in the public. Those who have been accused are ostracized, cast out of society. It’s like a witch hunt, and people seem to demand that the abusers be burned at the stake, even without trials. In all of this, we see the devastating power of sin. Sin hurts all of us. It affects all of life. It corrupts that which God originally made good. The victims of sexual abuse clearly carry the scars of the sins of others. But the fact is that all of us carry scars from sin—our sin, the sins of others, and the corruption that has entered into a fallen world because of sin of the first human beings.
While many people are pointing out the sins of sexual abusers, very few people talk about the underlying factors and causes that lead certain people to commit sexual abuse. And fewer people still talk about what kind of society would help people deal with sexual temptation. Because we all have sinful natures, many of us will experience sexual temptation. Some of us will feel very strong urges to do things that are against God’s design for sex. How do we deal with these temptations?
That question should lead us to think about the problem of sin and the answer to that problem. Sin is ultimately a rebellion against God. No, not all of us have committed sexual abuse. But we have all failed to live for God. We have all done wrong. We’ve ignored the very reason we live, move, and have our being. We were made in God’s image and likeness, which means that we were meant to reflect God’s glory, to represent him, to worship him, to love him, and to obey him. And we don’t do that, at least not all the time. And if we’re being honest, we all feel the pull to do things that are wrong, things that are selfish, things that are destructive.
What is the answer to this problem? Well, the good old Sunday school answer remains the same: “Jesus!” Jesus is the answer to our sin. As I said last week, Jesus is our champion. He wins the battles that we can’t win, the battles that we have lost. We have all been tempted, and we have given into temptation. Jesus, as the true Son of God and the true image of God, never sinned, even though he was tempted. Part of his mission was to resist temptation and to defeat the Tempter, the devil.
Today, we’re going to look at Luke 4:1–13. Last week, we saw that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Right after being baptized, while Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit came upon him and God the Father announced that Jesus is his beloved Son. After that episode, Luke presents to us a genealogy that moves in reverse order, connecting Jesus to the first man, Adam. Adam is called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), but Adam wasn’t a perfect son, because he failed to obey God. A perfectly loving son would perfectly obey a perfect Father. Adam failed. After Adam had failed, God created a people out of an old man, Abraham, and his once-barren wife, Sarah. And when Israel had multiplied in Egypt, they were called God’s “son” (Exod. 4:22). Yet Israel repeatedly sinned.
God wants to relate to a people. God makes covenants with these people. Covenants are like binding pacts, treaties, if you will. They include promises but also establish expectations. All the covenant partners of the Old Testament failed: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, King David. Jesus comes to be the perfect covenant partner, the perfect human being who fulfills God’s plans and expectations for mankind. That’s why Jesus’ obedience matters so much.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s read through today’s passage. After we read the passage, I’ll make a few points about what we see in this passage, and then I’ll discuss several ways that it applies to our lives. Here is Luke 4:1–13:
1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I want to make several observations about what we see in this passage. First, we see that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and he is led by the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is exactly where God wants him. Of course, Jesus is divine. He is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God, with an eternal, divine nature. But over two thousand years ago he added a second nature, a human nature. And he lived his life on earth primarily as a man. Much of Jesus’ strength in his ministry comes from the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, this scene takes place in the wilderness. And he was there for forty days, while fasting. All of that reminds us of Israel. During the time of Moses, the Israelites were enslaved under the Pharaoh in Egypt. God rescued them out of slavery through many miracles, including the ten plagues, the last of which was the Passover. He led them through the Red Sea and to Mount Sinai, where he gave them his law, including the Ten Commandments, and he made a covenant with them. And then he led them through the wilderness for forty years (Num. 14:33; 32:13). Forty days also reminds us of the time when Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law (Exod. 24:18). Like Jesus, Israel was also led by the Holy Spirit (Neh. 9:20; Isa. 63:11.) Their time in the wilderness was a time of testing (Deut. 8:2). And they failed that test, repeatedly sinning.
Third, Jesus was fasting for forty days, just as the prophets Moses and Elijah had done (Exod. 34:28; 1 Kgs. 19:8). This is apparently as long as a human can possibly fast. Fasting is often associated with having a special focus on God, relying on his strength and provision in the place of food. Jesus is clearly relying on God throughout this whole passage.
Fourth, Jesus was tempted by the devil, Satan. This tempting apparently lasted the entire time of the forty days. It’s likely that the three temptations we see here were either representative of Satan’s temptations or they were the final temptations Jesus faced, after he had been fasting for about forty days.
The word “devil” is based on a Greek word (διάβολος) that means “slanderer.” And the word “Satan” is based on a Hebrew word (שָׂטָן) that means “adversary.” That tells us a lot about who the devil is. Luke hardly explains who the devil is. And, really, he’s not mentioned a lot in the Old Testament. But there are a few important times when he appears. We know from the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, that Satan is the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Rev. 12:9). He got them to doubt God’s goodness. Quite famously, he questioned whether God had actually given a commandment. He said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of the any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve said that yes, God had given that commandment and that if they disobeyed, they would die, Satan said, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:2–4). And he led Eve to believe that God had given this commandment in order to keep them from having their eyes opened and becoming like God (Gen. 3:5). Adam and Eve gave into this temptation and ate the forbidden fruit. They trusted Satan’s words more than they trusted God’s. And because of that, the world came under a curse and they were kicked out of the garden, a paradise, and into the wilderness.
Satan also appears in the book of Job, which I preached through last year. There, Satan appears as an angel in heaven. He seems intent on showing that Job, a righteous man, worshiped God only because God had given Job a good life, including wealth and a large family. God allowed Satan to take that wealth, that family, and even good health away from Job. But Satan was wrong. Job didn’t curse God. Job wrestled with God in his suffering, but he never lost his faith.
We also see Satan in a vision in the book of Zechariah. In Zechariah 3, Satan appears as an accuser. He points out the sin of the high priest, Joshua. Yet God removes Joshua’s filthy garments and replaces them with pure, clean clothing (Zech. 3:1–5). Though Joshua was a sinner, God made him clean.
And we’re told that Satan “incited” King David to make a census, in order to number the people of Israel (1 Chron. 21:1). It seems that Satan caused David to trust in numbers and to become proud, instead of relying on God and his power.
So, what does Satan do? He tempts. He lies. He wants to create a division between God and his people. He accuses God’s people, delighting to point out their sin. It seems Satan wanted nothing more than to derail Jesus’ mission, to get him to doubt God and his goodness and to get him to follow him instead of the words of his Father in heaven.
Fifth, Satan tempts Jesus. He begins with these words, “If you are the Son of God.” It’s almost as if Satan is trying to create doubt in Jesus’ mind. This reminds me of Satan’s words to Eve: “Did God really say . . . ?” Jesus knows he’s the Son of God. God told him so (Luke 3:22). But here he is, in the wilderness, being harassed by Satan and he’s also very, very hungry. Perhaps Satan was trying to get Jesus to question the goodness of his own Father. At any rate, Satan tells Jesus to turn stone into bread so he can eat.
It’s important to note this about Jesus and his temptations. Jesus’ temptations are unique. Most of us are tempted by bad desires within us. But that’s not true of Jesus. Jesus, even as a man, did not have a fallen, sinful nature. But we do. James, Jesus’ brother, writes this in his letter:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13–15).
Jesus wasn’t tempted by anything bad within himself. It’s no sin to eat when you’re hungry. But Jesus would have been using his supernatural powers to serve his own will, not the Father’s, and he would have been doubting his Father’s love and provision for him, the way the Israelites doubted God in the wilderness. Jesus said, in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” His mission was to fulfill his Father’s will, not his own. So, he answers Satan with Scripture, quoting a passage from Israel’s wilderness wanderings. He uses Deuteronomy 8:3. He says, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”The Scriptures, God’s Word, were his food. In John 4:34, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Jesus trusted God so much that he knew God would get him through this period of fasting. He didn’t need to listen to Satan. He trusted his Father and his Father’s words.
Satan’s second temptation begins in verse 5. He somehow shows Jesus all the kingdoms in the world, probably in some kind of vision, and he says that all of these can belong to Jesus if only he will do one thing: worship the devil. That sounds like a bad hard rock song, but Satan would love to have Jesus worship anyone or anything other than God the Father.
I don’t know that Satan was telling the truth here. Yes, Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). I suppose that’s because the “world” often means the whole system of sinful humanity that is opposed to God. But God is the true ruler of the world. It’s his world (Ps. 24:1). Satan can only have power because God allows it, for mysterious purposes that somehow bring about his plans. Satan often tells half-truths. He told some half-truths to Eve. He said that when she ate the forbidden fruit, she wouldn’t die. It’s true she didn’t physically die that very day. But Adam and Eve’s sin did lead to death. At any rate, it seems like Satan is probably overselling here. He’s offering Jesus authority and glory, which is something that only God can give.
In fact, Daniel prophesied that the “Ancient of Days” (God the Father) would give “dominion and glory and a kingdom” to the “Son of Man,” Jesus (Dan. 7:14). But before Jesus receives that power, he must first suffer. Satan offers Jesus a path to glory without suffering. He’s offering Jesus a kingdom without a cross. Jesus didn’t come the first time to be a political ruler. He didn’t come to be rich and famous. He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). And he saves by identifying with sinful human beings, by living in a world of violence and pain, and by suffering on the cross, dying a criminal’s death to save sinners. Without that suffering, there is no salvation. Without that suffering, we couldn’t be reconciled to God and forgiven of our sins. Without that suffering, Jesus couldn’t be a King, because in the end he wouldn’t have any subjects. All sinners would be condemned, and there would be no one to dwell with Jesus forever.
Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, once tried to persuade Jesus not to suffer and die. And how did Jesus respond? He said, “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). Jesus knew he came to die in the place of sinners, and nothing could stop him.
That’s why Jesus responds to Satan, again using a passage from Deuteronomy. This time he quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 and says, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Only God deserves worship. If we worship anything other than God, we’re sinning. How many people will get more excited about the Super Bowl next Sunday than about church? When we put our love, our hope, our money, and our emotions into anything more than worshiping God, that reveals our true object of worship. Whatever we love, trust, and obey the most is our god. If we look to anything other than God to find our ultimate security, meaning, acceptance, happiness, and identity, we’re worshiping a false god, an idol. We have all done this in some way or another, even if we don’t think of it as worship. But Jesus never failed to love, obey, and worship his Father in heaven.
The third temptation that Satan offers to Jesus begins in verse 9. We’re told he brought him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. This was probably on the southeast corner of the temple complex, high above the Kidron Valley below. From the top of the temple to the bottom of the valley was about 450 feet. This time, Satan wants Jesus to test God. Again, the idea is that God’s Son shouldn’t suffer. So, once again, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God . . .” And this time, Satan quotes Scripture. He uses Psalm 91:11–12, which promises that God will deliver his people through angels. In fact, the whole Psalm promises deliverance. The fact that Satan quotes this Psalm shows that even Satan knows Scripture. He probably has more head knowledge about God than we do. According to John Piper, “Indeed the devil thinks more true thoughts about God in one day than a saint does in a lifetime, and God is not honored by it. The problem with the devil is not his theology, but his desires.” False teachers often use Scripture today, but they use only bits of it, and often out of context. If you take something out of context, you can make it say almost anything you want. But while God does promise deliverance in the Bible, it doesn’t mean it will come automatically. The Bible promises ultimate deliverance. When Jesus returns, there will be a final day of judgment and salvation, and God’s people will be delivered from sin, death, and a corrupt world. They will live in paradise forever with God. But before then, God’s people will get sick and die. They will feel pain and sorrow and suffering.
Jesus knew that his path would include suffering. It’s no sin not to want to be hurt. But Jesus knew that the kind of stunt Satan was asking him to perform wasn’t really a sign of trust in God. It was testing God. If we really trust God, we don’t need him to show us he cares for us by providing miracles for us. It would be like one of us saying, “God, if you really are a God who saves, catch me after I jump off this bridge.” If you need that kind of sign from God, you don’t have faith, you have doubt. Jesus knew this. So, once again, he quoted Scripture, this time using Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Here’s the sixth observation I want to make about this passage before we move on to thinking about how it applies to our lives. When Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations, the devil leaves. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan!” (Matt. 4:10). Here, we’re simply told Satan departed. But then we’re given an ominous note: “he departed from him until an opportune time.” Though Satan knew he couldn’t tempt Jesus, he wasn’t finished. In fact, I think you can make a good argument that he carried on his work through the various Jewish religious authorities who came to Jesus in order to test him and trap him (for example, see Luke 10:25; 11:16). People who didn’t believe Jesus was indeed the Son of God falsely accused him. They did the work of Satan by telling lies against him.
Later, Satan would influence one of Jesus’ followers to betray him. Luke says that “Satan entered into Judas,” who arranged to have Jesus arrested away from the crowds (Luke 22:3–6). And when Jesus was being crucified, people who passed by mocked him, echoing Satan’s words, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40).
And though Jesus’ temptations at this time came to an end, he wasn’t done being tempted. On the night before he died, he was tempted in a garden, just like Adam. This time, he was tempted about food. No, he was tempted not to face God’s wrath against sin. Again, it’s no sin not to want to suffer and die. And it’s no sin to not want to feel the absence of God’s love. Jesus had experienced unbroken fellowship with God the Father forever, and now he was facing the possibility of experiencing his Father’s wrath. This was the Son of God’s plan, too, but it’s one thing to know a plan in advance; it’s quite another thing to experience something in the present. So, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Jesus was in agony. Luke says, “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Yet Jesus loved the Father so much he did his will. He said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ divine will caused him to want to die for sinners. Jesus’ human will didn’t want to suffer such wrath, but he loved the Father so much he was willing to submit to the Father’s plan.
Even though Satan tried to stop Jesus, he couldn’t. Nothing could stop Jesus from succeeding where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where you and I fail.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives. How should we respond to this passage?
The first thing we should do is to be thankful that Jesus is our champion. We should again be thankful that God sent his only, beloved Son into the world to save us from sin, to do what we don’t and can’t do. In this case, he successfully resisted temptation. Like I said last week, we don’t just want to think of Jesus as an example. Yes, he’s an example. But he’s more than that. He fights the ultimate war of sin and death against Satan for those who trust in him. If you are united to Jesus because you have faith in him, he has resisted temptation for you, and he has won.
Second, if you don’t know Jesus personally as your Lord and Savior, the time to trust in his victory is now. We must admit that we have all given in to temptation. We have all failed to do what is right. We have failed to put God first in our lives, and that’s why we exist. Jesus came to save failures from sin and condemnation. But in order to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven, you must first acknowledge your failure. And then you must turn to Jesus.
Third, Jesus is an example of how to fight against temptation. How did he do that? He used things that are available to all of us. He was led by the Holy Spirit. If you’re truly a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. Don’t forget that. Ask God to give you the strength to resist temptation.
The greatest tool that Jesus used to resist temptation was Scripture. He used God’s word to turn back Satan. In fact, Jesus’ greatest representative, the apostle Paul, calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). It’s a weapon. When we’re under pressure, considering whether to do the right thing or not, we can think back to what is true. But we can only use that tool if we’ve been training to use it. You can’t use God’s word if you don’t know it. Jesus spent years learning and memorizing Scripture. Remember that passage in chapter 2 of Luke that describes the 12-year-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, listening to and questioning the teachers (Luke 2:41–52)? I suppose Luke gave us that story in part to show that Jesus spent his time as a youth learning the Bible. Yes, in his divine nature he knows everything, including the content of the Bible. But, strange as it may seem, he lived primarily as a man, setting aside his divine powers and using his human nature. So, in his human nature, he had to learn. And he learned Scripture.
Do we know Scripture that way? Can we think about what God says about sex and money and honesty when we’re tempted to cheat, steal, and gratify our urges? Part of why we should read the Bible multiple times is to drill God’s word into our minds and hearts, so that we’re trained to live righteous lives.
Also, Jesus simply obeyed. Not only did he have the Spirit and the Scriptures, but he had a heart to obey God. Obedience comes not out of duty, but out of love. If we love and trust God, we will want to obey him. We will know that his word is true and that his commands are for our benefit. If we love God, we will want to obey. We will want to know his word.
Here’s a fourth, related point. Learning to live righteously and to resist temptation takes training. Jesus began his public ministry after he turned thirty. He might have been about 32 or 33 years old. He needed time to learn, time to practice living rightly and resisting smaller temptations before taking on Satan in the wilderness. Resisting temptation takes training. We begin to learn how to resist temptations by starting with small things.
In his great book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,
Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.
If Jesus has fought the war against sin for us, that doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in a battle, a battle that we must fight. And each choice we make is a small tactical maneuver that will help us win or lose that battle. Each choice matters. We need to make the right choices in little things in order to condition our moral reflexes to do the right thing.
This past week, I watched a video that’s part of a new series about Tom Brady. It’s only available on Facebook, and the series is called Tom vs. Time. In that first episode, Brady says, “What are you willing to do and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be? You only have so much energy, and the clock’s ticking on all of us. And when you say yes to something, it means you gotta say no to something else.” He then says his life is focused around football. If you’re a Christian, your life should be focused on God and you should desire to be the best Christian you can be. If you say yes to Jesus, that means you say no to a lot of other things. You may be tempted to stay home on a Sunday morning. But the Bible says that forsaking worship together is a sin (Heb. 10:24–25). We may be tempted to watch television and not read the Bible and pray, but God tells us that our food is God’s word (Deut. 8:3). Start training with the small things and you’ll be ready to fight the battle.
Fifth, and this is just an observation, Jesus was tempted because he was doing God’s will. He was where God wanted him to be, doing what God wanted him to do. Satan doesn’t bother tempting those who are doing a fine job of sinning. A lot of people are already happy to give in to temptation. They don’t need his “help.” Satan attacks us hardest when we’re doing what God wants us to do. So, don’t be surprised to come under Satan’s attacks when you’re actually obeying. Satan doesn’t want you to follow Jesus. He can’t separate you from Christ, but he’ll do what he can to hurt you and confuse you.
Sixth and finally, we don’t want to be part of Satan’s attacks. Satan lies, often dealing with half-truths. He is “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). He tempts. We shouldn’t be part of telling lies, or even half-truths. Someone once said that when a half-truth is presented as a whole truth, it’s not the truth at all. We shouldn’t accuse each other, pointing fingers. We shouldn’t tempt each other. Now, I want to be very clear. There may be a temptation right now in this church to talk about things you don’t really know about. There may be a temptation to think you know what happened when you don’t. There may be a temptation to gossip, to jump to conclusions, to imagine things that aren’t true. Don’t do it. If you don’t know the whole truth about something, it’s best not to talk about it. And tell others not to. We want to fight against Satan, not be his instruments.
Let us thank Jesus for fighting against temptation for us. Let us thank him for dying on the cross to pay for our sins. Let us trust that victory on our behalf. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Jesus, resisting the devil by the power of the Spirit and by using God’s word. And let’s help each other fight that battle.
- Alan D. Lieberson, “How Long Can a Person Survive without Food?” Scientific American, November 8, 2004, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-can-a-person-sur/ (accessed January 12, 2015). ↑
- You can find all those sermons at https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 379. For a description of this height, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.11.5. ↑
- John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 30-31. This reminds me of some lyrics from Tom Waits’s song, “Misery’s the River of the World”: “The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.” ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 132. ↑
Luke is the only Gospel that contains the story of a 12-year-old Jesus at the temple. What do we learn from this story? We learn more about who Jesus is (Son of the Father and also a human being), why he came (to do the will of the Father, in this case by learning and explaining the Scriptures), and his priorities. Pastor Brian Watson explains Luke 2:41-52 in this sermon.
Do you ever wonder what famous people were like when they were children? Do you ever watch Patriot games, or Patriot press conferences, and wonder what Bill Belichick was like as a child? Did he ever smile? If you asked little Billy Belichick how what he got for Christmas, he probably would say, “I’m just focused on preparing for New Year’s.” Did you ever wonder what Donald Trump was like as a kid? Did he have that hair? Did he wear a long red tie? We can thank God that Twitter didn’t exist back then.
It’s natural, then, to wonder what Jesus was like as a child. What was he like as a boy? People have made up stories about Jesus as a child. There are stories of him that came a century after the Bible was written, stories about him making birds out of clay, for example. Others who are into eastern religions or New Age spirituality claim that Jesus went to India as a child. We have no evidence of this and it would make no sense for a Jewish boy to travel there. The only early, detailed, and reliable documents concerning Jesus are the documents of the New Testament. And the Bible hardly tells us anything about Jesus before he was a man. We have the stories of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. But there is only one story of Jesus as a child. And that is the story that we’re looking at today, in Luke 2:41–52. This is the end of the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The rest of his biography of Jesus describes what Jesus did when he was in his thirties. The one story that we see today gives us an indication of who Jesus is and what he came to do. It also shows us that when we rightly prioritize things in our lives, people will not understand.
Before we read today’s passage, I want to read again the last verse of the passage that we read last week. Here is what Luke 2:40 says: “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.” Like any other child, Jesus grew. The next time we meet him, he’s 12 years old. And, for the first time in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks. Let’s hear what he says to say. We’ll read Luke 2:41–52:
41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.
Here’s some context to help us understand this passage. Jesus and his parents live in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee, roughly an 80-mile journey north of Jerusalem (if they went around Samaria).  That would take about four days to walk. Jewish people were supposed to go the temple in Jerusalem three times a year, to attend the three major feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and the feast of Tabernacles (Exod. 23:14–17; 34:22–23; Deut. 16:16). People who traveled to Jerusalem often went in caravans, in part for safety’s sake; those who went alone or in small groups were vulnerable to highway robbers. We see that Jesus’ parents were faithful, making their annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover.
On the way back, Joseph and Mary didn’t realize that Jesus wasn’t with them. This may seem strange, but we have to remember he was twelve. In the eyes of Jewish people, he was one year shy of being a man. Perhaps Joseph and Mary thought Jesus was with some of their relatives or among other travelers in their caravan. For whatever reason, they didn’t notice Jesus wasn’t with them until the end of the first day. They took another day’s journey to go back to Jerusalem, and then, on the third day, they found Jesus in the temple. (He would have been somewhere in the temple complex, not in the temple building itself, since only priests could enter that holy building.)
When Joseph and Mary find Jesus there, he is “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” These would be teachers of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The way Jesus was interacting with them astonished them: “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” He was wise beyond his years.
Jesus’ parents were astonished, too. But they weren’t pleased. When they find him, Mary says, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” That last word is used to describe the rich man who was in “anguish” (Luke 16:25) in Hades in the famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which comes later in Luke’s Gospel. It’s understandable that Joseph and Mary would be in distress, not knowing where their son was. Last week, we found out that Jesus would cause a “sword” to pierce Mary’s soul (Luke 2:35). This is one of those times when Jesus caused her distress.
But Jesus was not sinning. He tells Mary, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” I have to explain that second question. In the original language, which is Greek, Jesus says that he had to be “in the . . . of my Father.” Luke actually doesn’t provide us a noun. Grammatically, it can’t be “house” or “temple,” because the first “the” is plural. The King James Version has Jesus saying, “I must be about my Father’s business” (so also the New King James Version). It could be that Jesus had in mind the “things” or “affairs” of his Father. The point that Jesus is making is that he is concerned with the business of God the Father. Shouldn’t his parents understand by now that he needed to be at the temple, doing the work of discussing the meaning of Scripture with the teachers there?
He also says that he “must” be doing this work. That could also be translated “it is necessary for me to be doing the things of my Father.” Several times in Luke’s Gospel, he has Jesus saying that he must do things. This means these things are part of God’s eternal plan. Later, Jesus will say that he had to preach the gospel (Luke 4:43), that he had to suffer, die, and be raised (Luke 9:22; 17:25; 24:7, 26), that he had to do this in Jerusalem (Luke 13:33), that he had to stay with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:5), that he had to be numbered among the transgressors (Luke 22:37), and that it was necessary that Scripture about him be fulfilled (Luke 24:44). There were certain things that Jesus had to do, tasks that his Father gave him. And Jesus did them. He was perfectly obedient to the Father.
Jesus’ words about his “Father” must have been a bit surprising to Joseph and Mary. Of course, Joseph knew he wasn’t Jesus’ biological father. Still, I wonder if these words stung him a bit. But what is surprising is how closely Jesus identifies himself with God. The Jews as a whole could refer to God as “Father” (Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16; 64:8), but we don’t have a record of individual Jewish people talking about God as “my Father.” Jesus clearly identifies himself with God in the most intimate of ways. This is particularly clear in John’s Gospel. At one point in the book of John, Jesus says he must heal on the Sabbath because his Father is always working. (God never takes a day off. He is always busy sustaining the universe.) Jesus says, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Then, in the next verse, John explains the result of this statement: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will say, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Again, that causes some Jewish leaders to want to kill him (John 10:31). In many ways, the Gospels show that Jesus is divine. He is the Son of God. He truly is God.
And yet Jesus was and is also truly man. He truly was a boy who submitted to his parents. We’re told that he “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature.” He not only grew in size, but he grew in wisdom. He had to learn. He had to study the Old Testament and grow in his understanding of it.
Now that I’ve explained the text, I want to point out some important theological principles. The first is that Jesus came to reveal more clearly who God is. He did this in part by further explaining the Old Testament. It makes perfect sense that he would be at the temple learning from the teachers of Scripture there. And it seems that his questions challenged those teachers. It’s quite possible they were learning as much from him as he was learning from them.
This is now the second time that we see Jesus at the temple. Last week, we saw that the baby Jesus was brought there (Luke 2:22–40). The next time that Luke talks about Jesus at the temple is during Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:9). The fourth time that Jesus is at the temple (in Luke’s Gospel) is when he comes to it during the passion week, the week that includes his death. He cleanses the temple (Luke 19:45–48), he teaches at the temple (Luke 20), and he says a time is coming when the temple will be destroyed (Luke 21:5–24). In part, that was because many Jews failed to see that their Messiah, their long-awaited anointed King, had come. But the temple had to go because Jesus came to replace the temple. He was and is the true meeting place of God and his people. He is our “place” of worship. His death on the cross replaced the whole system of animal sacrifices that could never really atone for human sins. Jesus came to the temple during this Passover to learn and, perhaps, teach. The next time he comes to the temple at Passover, he comes to die. Though he was and is perfect, never having done anything wrong, he died for the sins of anyone who would trust him. All who realize they have rebelled against God, that they have sinned, and who realize that Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death are the only way to be right with God, have the penalty of their wrongdoing paid for. We can be forgiven for the worst sins if we trust Jesus, because he died for us.
The second principle we should see is that Jesus was aware of who he was and he had his priorities right. He knew he had to honor his father and mother. But he also had to do what his Father in heaven wanted him to do. Mary didn’t understand this. And this isn’t the last time that Jesus’ family wouldn’t understand him (Mark 3:20–21, 31–35).
The third principle we should see is that Jesus is not only God, but he is also human. Though he has always existed as the Son of God, over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. He was conceived—supernaturally—in a womb. He grew there. He had a real birth. He had to grow and learn. He had to eat, drink, sleep, and go to the bathroom. He was and still is truly a human being, though one who also happens to be God.
It’s hard to understand this amazing fact, that God became man. This is what we call the incarnation, which literally means “enfleshment.” Jesus, the “Word of God,” became flesh (John 1:14). That means he had a human body, a human soul, and a human mind. He wasn’t just “God trapped in a body.” He was and is truly human and it’s important to know this (1 John 4:2–3; 2 John 7).
It’s hard for us to comprehend how one person could have two natures, a divine nature and a human nature. It’s difficult for us to fathom that Jesus is God and man. It seems like it involves contradictions. As one theologian, Mark Jones, says,
In Christ we see eternity and temporality, eternal blessedness and temporal sorrow, omnipotence and weakness, omniscience and ignorance, unchangeableness and mutability, infinity and finitude. All of these contrasting attributes come together in the person of Jesus Christ. . . . Jesus learned and Jesus knew all things; Jesus died and Jesus gives life to all living creatures; Jesus drank from his mother’s breasts and Jesus provided his mother with the milk to feed him.
I think it’s particularly hard to understand how Jesus could be both God, which means he is omniscient, and also human, which means he doesn’t know all things and would have to learn the way that you and I learn. It’s true that Jesus had the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding” (Isa. 11:2). But Jesus also had to do the hard work of learning. He had to learn how to walk and speak. He had to learn how to read and write. He had to learn the Hebrew Bible.
So, how can Jesus be both God and man in his understanding? Well, the answer is that he had two minds. This might at first seem nonsensical, but it’s not. I want to read one explanation of how this works. It’s a bit technical, but I’ll explain. These are the words of the theologian John Feinberg:
[I]n Christ there were two minds (two distinct ranges of consciousness), one divine and one human. Christ possessed the eternal mind of God the Son, which knows all things. But he also possessed a “distinctly earthly consciousness that came into existence and grew and developed as the boy Jesus grew and developed.” The relation between the two minds was asymmetrical. That is, the divine mind knew and had access to everything the human mind knew, but the human mind has access to the divine only when the divine mind allowed it access. What Jesus knew through his human mind alone and apart from any access it had to his divine mind was only what was available to any other human living at that time. But since he was not merely human, Jesus had access to information that no mere human could know apart from divine revelation.
To use an imperfect analogy, Jesus is like a computer that has two processors and two hard drives. One processor is so fast that it takes no time to process information. One hard drive has unlimited storage space. The other processor is more modest, and the other hard drive has limits. As a man, Jesus uses the more modest processor and the limited hard drive. Every once in a while, he could switch processors and hard drives. According to Jesus’ divine nature, he never had to learn anything. He knew everything. But according to his human nature, Jesus had to learn and didn’t know everything. Most of the time while on earth, it seems that Jesus functioned according to his human nature. But he always has access to his divine nature, and when he knew what people were thinking or their secrets, and when he performed miracles, he was accessing his divine powers.
Another way of thinking about this is to imagine a star athlete playing with children. Let’s imagine Kyrie Irving, the star of the Celtics, playing with some children on a playground. In order to let the kids play with him, Kyrie might tone down his game. He might not run and dribble as fast as he can, or jump as high as he can. But every once in a while, to show the kids that he is indeed an NBA All-Star, he might pull out some of his famous dribbling abilities or dunk the ball. In that scenario, Kyrie never lost his basketball superpowers, he just decided not to use them.
In order to learn more about how Jesus can be both God and human, I would encourage you to listen to the sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” that I preached three years ago. You could find it on our website under the “Who Is Jesus?” sermon series.
What’s important for us is to know that Jesus needed to be fully and truly human in order to save us. As Mark Jones explains, “If he did not have both a human body and a human soul, then the incarnation did not entirely take place, and some aspect of our humanity could not be redeemed. As the early church father Gregory Nazianzen famously declared: ‘For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.’” Jesus needed to fulfill God’s expectations for humanity. He needed to live the perfect human life in our place in order to satisfy what we might call God’s positive demands. And he also needed to die as the perfect, eternal, infinite sacrifice, to fulfill what we might call God’s negative demands. God is a perfect, righteous judge, and any righteous judge will have the crimes of criminals punished. In order to gain freedom, we need to have the penalty for our crimes paid in full, and that’s what Jesus does for us.
Augustine, a famous theologian and pastor who lived sixteen hundred years ago, summarized the mystery and wonder of Jesus’ incarnation. He once wrote,
Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation might be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.
Now that we’ve thought about some of the theological principles that are on display in this passage, we have to think about how it should direct our lives.
The first thing we should do is thank God for sending his Son. We should wonder and be thankful that Jesus would become a human being, to teach, to live a perfectly righteous life, and to die in our place. He does what we cannot and do not do. The whole message of Christianity could be summarized as “Christ for us.” Salvation is a free gift, and we should never think, “Be like Jesus in order to be acceptable to God.” We simply need to trust Jesus in order to be right with God.
If you’re here today and you don’t understand what it means to put your faith in Jesus, I would love to help you know more about it. But I will say this clearly: Jesus is the only God-man, the only mediator between God and sinful human beings. He is the only Savior. He is the only one who would leave his glorious position in heaven and descend to earth, to live humbly. He is the only God who would ever endure shame, pain, suffering, and death. He is the only one who lay down his life to pay for your sins. There is no other way to be right with God, to have eternal life, and to truly be wise than to know Jesus. And knowing Jesus starts simply with trusting him.
But we should also follow Jesus’ example. We should ask ourselves three questions: Are we about our Father’s business? Are we growing in wisdom? Are our priorities right?
Now, we can’t do all the work that Jesus did. We don’t need to. He had a very special mission, to save his people from sins. You or I cannot do that. Again, we don’t need to. Jesus already did the work. But we should be doing the work that God has called us to. He calls us to repent of our sins and put our trust in his Son. He calls us to worship him, to glorify him through everything we do, whether it’s part of a worship service, our service to the church, our love for our neighbor, or our obedience in all of life. We exist for God. We were made to reflect his glory and his attributes. Are you living for God or yourself? Are you representing God well?
Are we growing in wisdom? We should be growing in wisdom and knowledge (Col. 1:9). True wisdom and true knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). That means we must understand who God is and we must respect him. And we must read the Bible and meditate on it. There are several resources to help you read the Bible that are available on our website and also on the table in the back of the room. Take advantage of those resources. There are no excuses not to read the Bible. But understanding the Bible is more than reading it. It is doing the hard work of thinking about its meaning and understanding how it applies to our lives.
The first Psalm begins this way:
1 Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night (Ps. 1:1–2).
Jesus is the perfect example of a man who delights in God’s word and meditates on it day and night. He meditated on it and he acted according to it. That is what we are supposed to do. This comes only through work.
Finally, do we have prioritize things rightly? When we are truly following Jesus, there will be some people who don’t understand why we do the things we do, just as Mary didn’t understand why Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. When we are following God’s word, we’ll be accused falsely. People won’t like it when we don’t follow traditions, or conventional wisdom, or the prevailing opinions of the day. But we must follow Jesus. That may cause some tensions in our lives. We may feel torn between our service to the Lord and our work, or our service to the Lord and our obligations to our families. We must navigate these choppy waters with wisdom. But that wisdom is acquired only through faith, through reading God’s word and meditating on it, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us endeavor to be wise, to rightly order our lives, and to be about our Father’s business.
- See “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” http://gnosis.org/library/inftoma.htm. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 264. ↑
- “ἐν τοῖς τοῦ πατρός μου”. ↑
- Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 31. ↑
- Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 32. ↑
- John S. Feinberg, “The Incarnation of Jesus Christ,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, ed. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 234. Feinberg is here describing the view of Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 103. The quotation is Morris’s (also page 103). ↑
- This idea comes from Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for the Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 525–526. Groothuis uses Michael Jordan in his hypothetical situation. ↑
- See “Jesus Was a Man,” January 4, 2015, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
- Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 51. Gregory’s quotation is found in “To Cledonius the Priest against Apollinarius,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 440. The full sentence is, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” ↑
- Augustine, Sermons 184–229 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 191.1, quoted in Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 33–34. ↑
- See https://wbcommunity.org/bible. ↑
When a mass shooting occurs, like the recent one in Las Vegas, people scramble for answers to the question of why the shooting occurred, and they suggest solutions. It’s common for people to assume that mass shootings occur because the shooters are mentally ill. It’s common for people to go to their prophets and priests, to psychiatrists and psychologists, for explanations of what happened to the mental health of these shooters. It’s common for people to open their Bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, better known as the DSM, to find out what labels apply to these shooters. The problem is that most of these shooters did not have serious mental illness. And only about 4% of violence is caused by mental illness. Furthermore, psychiatrists who actually study criminals realize that mental health is not really the root issue. Michael Stone, a forensic psychologist who has studied at least 300 killers, says, “It would be ridiculous to hope that doing something about the mental-health system will stop these mass murders. . . . It’s really folly.”
Why do people insist that mental health is the root cause? Perhaps it’s because we can’t accept the fact that human beings are by nature capable of committing horrific evil. Perhaps it’s also because we don’t want to consider any issues beyond the natural realm. We tend to think of mental health in terms of chemical imbalances, or other physical issues in the brain. That fits a naturalistic worldview perfectly well. That worldview says the only reality is physical, the stuff that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, the stuff that we can weigh and measure.
But what if evil comes from beyond the natural realm? What if reality includes things like God and immaterial beings? What if reality includes unseen angels, both good and fallen ones? What if there is a devil and his demons, who try to commit evil and disrupt God’s plans?
Recently, we’ve been answering questions that we have received, and today I want to answer one question: “Is the devil real?”
More people believe in God and heaven than they believe in the devil. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 79 percent of those surveyed said they definitely believe in God (another 10 percent weren’t sure); 72 percent said they believed in angels (12 percent weren’t sure); 71 percent said they believed in heaven (14 percent weren’t sure); 64 percent said they believed in hell (13 percent weren’t sure); and 61 percent said they believed in the devil (12 percent weren’t sure).
It’s interesting that people who believe in supernatural realities like God and heaven are less likely to believe that the devil exists. I suppose some people think he’s a silly myth. Perhaps one famous line in a movie, The Usual Suspects, is true: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That’s what C. S. Lewis thought. In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, he writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” If we don’t believe in the devil and demons, we can’t acknowledge the full reality of evil. If we are too interested in—or too frightened by—the devil, then we’ll take our focus off God.
The Bible quite clearly says that the devil, or Satan, exists. So, that is the answer to today’s question. The devil is real. And I think, since he is a preternatural being—that means he is beyond the natural world, and we can’t see him—we need to have his existence revealed to us. I think his existence explains the personal nature of evil. We get upset when a hurricane or an earthquake kills people. But truly evil acts are personal. Examples of personal evil acts include genocide, mass murder, rape, child abuse, and also betrayal and infidelity. Obviously, humans do these things. But what causes a person to do these things? What is the root of evil, the source of such evil?
While the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know about Satan, it tells us enough to know that he is the enemy of God and God’s people, he is someone we should be wary of, and we must resist him. We must be aware that he is the source of lies and murder, that he wants to create division in the world and in the church, that he accuses God’s people, and that he has great power. But we should also know that his power is limited and his doom is sure. In fact, there is a sense that he is already defeated, though he is now doing all he can to thwart God’s plans.
Today, I want to focus on three things. First, I want to explore Satan’s identity. Second, I want to talk about what Satan does. In other words, I want to explore his tactics. And, third, I want to talk about some good news regarding Satan, which is his defeat.
So, who is the devil? We’re going to have to do a bit of ground clearing here, because the popular conception of the devil is quite wrong. He’s far from a figure in red, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. In fact, the Bible says he can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).
Honestly, we don’t know a lot about his origins. The first clear reference to “Satan” in the Bible is in the book of Job, which I preached through earlier this year. In that book, there are two scenes in heaven in which God is with the “sons of God,” which we assume are angels. We’re told that Satan was among then, which suggests that he, too, is angel. Actually, Satan seems to be his title and not his proper name, because in the original Hebrew text, he’s called the Satan. Satan means “adversary,” which gives us an indication of who he is. He is God’s adversary, his enemy.
This is what we read of Satan in Job 1:6–12:
6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Does Job fear God for no reason? 10 Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
In Job, we see that Satan roams the earth, but he also—at least at this point—had access to heaven. He also accuses Job of serving God only because God has given Job a prosperous life. He claims that if God removes all the good things that Job has, Job will curse God to his face. So, God allows him to do some terribly things to Job, including kill all his children, take away all his possessions, and then, later, harm Job’s health.
We must admit that it’s difficult to understand why God would provoke Satan by bringing up Job’s name, or why he would allow Satan to hurt Job and his family. I don’t have time to explain all of this, but I did earlier this year, and you can find all of those sermons online. But the story of Job shows that the whole event actually strengthens Job’s trust in God and Job’s blessings return. It seems that God wanted to show Satan and Job that someone could worship him even if his life was shattered.
From this, we see that Satan wants to drive a wedge between God and his people. He doesn’t want people to worship God. He doesn’t want people to trust him. We also see that Satan doesn’t fit our preconceived notions of him. Many people think that Satan is a fallen angel who was banished from heaven sometime before the world was created, or at least before human beings were created. That’s how it is envisioned in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. But in the Old Testament, Satan is actually in heaven, with the power to “walk” on the earth.
That reality is pictured in another scene in the Old Testament. This time, it’s a vision that the prophet Zechariah sees. We find this at the beginning of Zechariah 3:
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” 3 Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. 4 And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” 5 And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the Lord was standing by.
Commentators believe this scene takes place in heaven. If it’s in heaven, it shows that Satan still had access to that realm in the Old Testament. Joshua was the priest of Israel after they returned from exile in Babylon. The high priest represented God to the Israelites and the Israelites to God. We don’t know exactly what sins he had committed, but Satan was there accusing him. Perhaps he was accusing the entire priesthood, saying that any Israelite would be unworthy to serve as priest because every Israelite had sinned. And that’s true. We all have sinned. But Satan seems to take delight in pointing out the unworthiness of sinners. Yet even here, we see that Satan’s accusations are met by God’s grace. God rebukes Satan and an angel takes off Joshua’s filthy garments, representing his sin, and clothes him in clean ones, which shows that he has been cleansed of his sins.
Of course, the most famous appearance of Satan in the Old Testament is at the very beginning of the Bible. He appears in the form of a serpent in Genesis 3. (However, we don’t find out that this is Satan until the last book of the Bible, Revelation.) In this famous story, the serpent tempts Eve, the first woman, to doubt God’s goodness. He asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve says, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:3), the serpent lies to her and says, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4–5). This was not true. God didn’t want them to eat from that tree because he wanted them to trust him, to trust that what he revealed about good and evil is true. The consequences were cosmically tragic; because Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, they were banished from Paradise and from the special presence of God. We’re not presented with the serpent’s reaction to this sad affair, but I bet he was pleased with his work.
So, from what we can gather from the Old Testament, Satan, the devil, is a rebellious angel who had access to heaven, who doubted God’s goodness, who encouraged humans to rebel against him, and who accused God’s people of sin. Beyond that, we really don’t know a lot more. There’s a lot of mystery here. Why would God create an angel who would rebel against him? Why would he be in heaven (as in the books of Job and Zechariah)? Why would he be in the garden of Eden in the form of a serpent? It really doesn’t solve the mystery if we say God gave him the choice to rebel. That just raises more questions. Why did God, who knows all things, create a being who would rebel against him? Why would God allow Satan to tempt Adam and Eve? We can speculate all we want, but we would just be guessing in the dark. Perhaps what makes Satan more sinister is the fact that he is so mysterious.
We do get more information about Satan as we turn to the New Testament. It seems that when the Son of God became man, that is, when Jesus was born, there was heightened demonic activity on the earth. When God came to earth, Satan really got to work. Perhaps the clearest scene regarding this is found in chapter 12 in the book of Revelation. Let’s read the first six verses:
1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
The book of Revelation is very different because it’s full of strange, fantastic images, which are full of very meaningful symbols. Here, we have the picture of a woman about to give birth. The woman appears to represent Israel, the people of God. (The twelve stars representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and possibly also the twelve apostles after the child is born.) She is about to give birth to a very special male child, who will rule the nations. That is the Messiah, Jesus. Right before Jesus is born, “a great red dragon” takes down a third of the stars of heaven and casts them to the earth. These may very well be angels, who became demons. And the dragon wanted to kill the male child when he was born. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, because he was threatened by the birth of the true King (Matt. 2). The child, however, was not devoured by the dragon. Instead, he was caught up to God. This vision doesn’t tell us why Jesus came, which was to save his people by living the perfect life that they don’t live because of their sin and dying in their place, taking the wrath that they deserve. Instead, this image skips to Jesus’ ascension, which happened after he died on the cross and after he rose from the grave. And when that happened, the woman, who represents God’s people, went into the wilderness, where she was sustained by God. Now let’s read verses 7–12 to see what happens next:
7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Roughly at the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the dragon fought against the archangel Michael, and it was then that the dragon was thrown down from heaven. Verse 9 makes it clear that this dragon is also the serpent of Genesis 3 and Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world.” He and his fallen angels were thrown down when Jesus rose victorious from the grave. He was not thrown down from heaven before the creation of the world. He is called “the accuser of our brothers,” because he accuses God’s people. In fact, the word “devil” comes from the Greek word diabolos, which means “slanderer.” The good news, which we’ll talk about in a moment, is that Satan is conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.” That’s a reference to Jesus’ death. And Satan is also conquered by those who testify to Jesus, who “love not their lives even unto death.” Those who follow Jesus and love him more than life—in other words, Christians—are conquerors of the devil because they are united to the conqueror of the devil, and that is Jesus.
However, though Satan is thrown down and defeated, in one sense, he is still very active. He has come down to the earth and sea—the visible creation—in great wrath, because his time is short. The devil can’t win and he knows it, and he’s quite angry. Again, from what we see of Satan, he hates God and wants to thwart God’s plans, even though no one can actually destroy them. He tries to attack God’s people, even though he can’t ultimately do that. He accuses and slanders and lies. Jesus himself says this about Satan: “He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). He would rather fight a losing fight than come under God’s authority. John Milton has Satan say, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”
So, that is who Satan is. We have already seen some of his tactics, which is the second thing we’ll talk about. His main tactic is deception. This can come through clear lies, or, more often, half-truths. He told Eve she wouldn’t die when she ate the forbidden fruit. Eve didn’t die immediately, nor did Adam. But they did die in a spiritual sense, which guaranteed that they would have physical deaths in the future. The reason anyone dies is because of the presence of sin in the world. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
Satan’s deception can be quite subtle. People who teach false doctrine often can seem very godly. The apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ messengers, warned one church (in Corinth) that false teachers would teach “another Jesus.” These teachers were teaching a “different gospel,” a different message about Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4). Paul then says he will work to undermine these false teachers. He says:
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).
Satan doesn’t come in a red suit, with a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. He works through his servants, who may very well wear nice suits and have big smiles. They talk smoothly and sweetly and say things you want to hear.
Satan can use different kinds of false teachings to lure different kind of people. Satan can tempt people with things like sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:5; 1 Tim. 5:14–15). False teachers often excuse sexual immorality (see 2 Pet. 2). He can also tempt people to believe false doctrines, like that we can’t enjoy the good things God has made (1 Tim. 4:1–5). He will use whatever keeps people from trusting God. After all Scripture says that he is “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the 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).
Another tactic that Satan uses is distraction. He wants to keep us from God’s Word. Jesus once told a parable, an instructive story, about a sower sowing seeds that fall on different types of ground. When Jesus explains the parable, he says, “The sower sows the word [of God]. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (Mark 4:14–15). In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis creatively imagines one senior devil writing to a junior devil, instructing him on the trade of fighting against “the Enemy,” God. In the first letter, Screwtape tells Wormwood about how he once almost lost a “patient, a sound atheist,” because this man was reading books in the British Museum and he started to think about things that would lead him to faith. The devil was able to distract him through hunger, telling him he would be better off coming back to these ideas after lunch. When the man left the museum and reentered the busy world of “real life,” he quickly forgot about those ideas that would lead him to think about God.
I think Satan would be pleased to have us all so entertained and distracted and busy that we never stop and think about what matters. When we are constantly distracted by television, the news stories that then become passionate debates which are rather quickly forgotten, and the digital world of computers, tablets, and phones, we have no time to think about eternal matters.
Satan also uses division, particularly in the church. He delights in our accusing each other, and slandering each other. Paul warns churches that anger (Eph. 4:26–27) and an unwillingness to forgive (2 Cor. 2:5–11) give the devil an “opportunity” and are part of his “designs.” If you know the story of Job, think about Job’s friends. They falsely accused him of sin, which means they were carrying out Satan’s work. The Jewish religious leaders who didn’t believe Jesus did the same thing to him.
As we’ve already seen, Satan points out our sin. He wants us to feel ashamed and unworthy. He wants us to feel condemned, beyond God’s reach and love. There’s a place in Christianity for feeling guilty. When it is used positively, guilt can be experienced as conviction. If you’ve been doing something wrong, and you become aware of it and know that you must change, that is conviction. When you confess your sin to God and ask for his help to stop doing it, that is repentance. It’s a positive thing. But Satan wants us to wallow in our guilt and feel condemned. He wants us to feel like it’s too late to change, like we’re too bad to forgive.
Satan certainly wants to harm us spiritually. If you are united to Jesus, he cannot tear you away from him. But Satan will do everything he can to render you ineffective, to deceive you, and to make you feel miserable. Jesus told Peter that Satan wanted to “sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Peter, in his first letter, warned his readers:
8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Pet. 5:8–9).
Satan can also harm us physically. I don’t think this means that all injuries and diseases are the direct result of Satan’s work. After all, part of God’s judgment against sin in the world is that life is hard and that we die (Gen. 3:16–19). Yet there are accounts in Scripture of Satan giving people physical ailments in order to oppress us and tear us away from God (Job 2:7; Luke 13:11, 16; Acts 10:38; possibly 2 Cor. 12:7 if Paul’s “thorn” was a physical ailment).
Another tactic that Satan uses is to get us to believe we can get back to Paradise without pain and suffering. When Jesus told his disciples that he must die (Matt. 16:21), Peter said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King and the Son of God (Matt. 16:16). It made no sense that he would have to die. Peter thought that Jesus would triumph through power. But Jesus corrected Peter by saying, “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). Peter didn’t understand that it was God’s plan for Jesus to die to pay the penalty for the sins of his people.
Anyone who comes to Jesus and trusts that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done have their sins paid for. But that doesn’t mean we will live easy lives. In fact, if we follow Jesus, we will face tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22) and persecution (2 Tim. 3:12). Satan wants to tempt people to reject such a life (1 Thess. 3:1–5). Those who take the easy path in this life, however, will not have eternal life with God. They may enjoy a life of comfort and ease now, but they will miss out on what is best, which is God. I suppose Satan is pleased with all the false preachers who teach that if you really have faith, God will give you an easy life filled with riches and a wonderful family.
Those are Satan’s tactics. Most of them involve lies.
Though Satan is powerful, there is good news. Though Satan is terrifying, he is a dog on God’s leash. He cannot act without God allowing him to act. The good news is that he is already defeated. Even though he is active right now, he is bound by God (Matt. 12:29; Rev. 20:1–3). We have seen that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, Satan has been “cast out” (John 12:31) and “thrown down” (Rev. 12:9). He has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev. 12:11). John tells us that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). The author of Hebrews says that Jesus suffered and died to bring “many sons to Glory” (Heb. 2:10). Then he says this of Jesus:
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).
God’s people have no reason to fear death. The fear of death is a form of lifelong slavery. But those who are united to Jesus know that though they die in this life, they will be resurrected to eternal life, which will far outweigh any suffering they experience.
The good news is that Jesus has already triumphed over Satan. Satan tried to stop Jesus. He tempted Jesus, but he couldn’t distract Jesus from his mission (Matt. 4:1–11). He accused Jesus through the Pharisees, the Scribes, and the other Jewish leaders who wanted to stop him. And Satan tried to destroy Jesus by having him killed (Luke 22:3–6; John 13:1–2, 21–30). But Jesus rose on the third day after he died, showing that Satan can’t stop him and even death can’t stop him. It was promised that a son of Eve would crush the serpent (Gen. 3:15), and we find that Jesus has done, is doing (Rom. 16:20), and will finally do this.
The good news is that Satan cannot remove us from the love of God (Luke 22:31–32; John 10:28; Romans 8). Satan cannot break the bonds of the Holy Spirit, who keeps us united to Jesus. He cannot, in the end, touch us (1 John 5:18).
The good news is that Satan will one be destroyed. He and his demons will be removed from God’s world forever (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:7–10).
Now, the question is, how do we battle against Satan? How do we equip ourselves to deal with his attacks?
The first step is to fear God, not Satan. We are never told to fear Satan. The worst he can do is cause confusion and death. But we are told to fear God. Jesus once said,
4 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 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!” (Luke 12:4–5)
Fearing God means having a proper respect for him. It means knowing that he, not Satan, is the true King, the ultimate authority. And if we fear God, we’ll trust his Son. We will trust that if we have a right relationship with Jesus, his righteous life is credited to us, and his death paid for our sins. That means that our sin cannot keep us from the love of God. If you belong to Jesus, you are forgiven. Your guilt is removed. You have been set free from that slavery.
The second step is to stand firm. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The reality is we don’t have to attack Satan. We don’t have to defeat him. He is already defeated. We just have to stand firm in our faith. If you feel like you’re being attacked by forces of evil, don’t do anything but stand firm. Keep trusting Jesus. Call out to him for help.
The best way to not be influenced by Satan is to know the truth. Almost all his tactics involve lies and deception. If we know the truth and really believe it, we won’t be swayed by Satan. That doesn’t mean life will be easy. There will be difficulties. We may feel as if we’re being attacked. We may feel guilty and unworthy. People may even slander us and persecute us. But this is somewhat normal. What you need to do in these situations is keep trusting in the truth of the gospel. Yes, we are guilty of sin. But the reason Jesus came was to save guilty sinners. Remember that though you are sinful, Jesus isn’t, and he gives us his perfect righteousness. He also died to pay for your sins. If you trust that—if you trust Jesus and follow him—you have no reason to fear.
So, is the devil real? The answer is yes. We know this from the Bible, which is God’s revelation to us. And our experience in this life is that there are great evils, such as the Holocaust and other genocides, such as mass murders, that are hard to explain otherwise. Why would people do such things? We can’t simply blame poor mental health. And there are certain evils that seem to go beyond our fallen, sinful nature. The only explanation I can give is that Satan is real, and he does his best to kill and destroy (John 10:10). But God is greater than Satan, and he has already won the decisive battle against Satan. One day, the war will be over and all of God’s people will live in Paradise. I hope to see you all there.
If you doubt whether you’ll be there, if you don’t know Jesus, I would love to talk to you about him. Please, don’t get distracted by things like your hunger for lunch, or football, or by whatever is waiting for you on your phone. This is too important. If you know the truth, it will set you free (John 8:31–32). It will set you free from the devil, the evil of this world, and slavery to sin and the fear of death. Knowing Jesus will give you freedom to experience the best, most beautiful reality, which is God.
- Jeffrey W. Swanson, E. Elizabeth McGinty, Seena Fazel, and Vickie M. Mays, “Mental Illness and Reduction of Gun Violence and Suicide: Bringing Epidemiologic Research to Policy,” Annals of Epidemiology May 2015, 25 (5): 366–377, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211925, , accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- Michael S. Rosenwald, “Most Mass Shooters Aren’t Mentally Ill. So Why Push Better Treatment as the Answer?” The Washington Post, May 18, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/most-mass-shooters-arent-mentally-ill-so-why-push-better-treatment-as-the-answer/2016/05/17/70034918-1308-11e6-8967-7ac733c56f12_story.html?utm_term=.3eced556e593, accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- Frank Newport, “Most Americans Still Believe in God,” Gallup News, June 29, 2016, http://news.gallup.com/poll/193271/americans-believe-god.aspx, accessed October 14, 2017. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperOne, 2001), ix. ↑
- The Hebrew word is שָׂטָן. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- At https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zecharia and Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 120; George Klein, Zechariah, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2008), 133. ↑
- This fact lines up with what Jesus says in John 12:31, on the eve of his sacrifice: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.” I believe this is also what Jesus foresaw when he says, in Luke 10:18, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” It also seems to fit what Revelation 20:1–6 says, that Satan is bound and placed in a bottomless pit “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer.” If my reading of that passage is correct, the “thousand years” of this period symbolizes the current era, the one between Jesus’ first and second comings. Satan is bound in the sense that he cannot deceive the elect that come from the nations to Jesus. But, in another sense, he is very much active and free to wreak havoc. ↑
- The Greek word is διάβολος. ↑
- See 1 John 5:1–5 and the sermon that I preached on this passage (on July 16, 2017), titled “Who Is It That Overcomes the World?” https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john. ↑
- John Milton, Paradise Lost i.263, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University, 2004), 11. ↑
- Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 2–4. ↑
- Again, see my sermons on Job, particularly those on Job 1–2 and 38–41, at https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- See also Eph. 6:10–20 and 1 Peter 5:8–9. ↑
In this Bible study, Pastor Brian Watson presents some tips on how to read the prophets well. The prophets were “covenant enforcers” who spoke to the Israelites of their day, encouraging them to turn back to God. The prophets are mostly written in poetry, which often uses images and figurative language. The prophets also pointed forward to the Messiah and the New Testament shows how those prophecies were fulfilled in unexpected ways.
Pastor Brian Watson teaches a Bible study on how to read the wisdom literature of the Bible, including Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.
In this Bible Study, Pastor Brian Watson teaches a lesson on how to read poetry in the Bible.
In this Bible study, Pastor Brian Watson teaches how to read the historical narratives of the Bible, such as, for example, Joshua, 1 Kings, or the book of Acts. This study was recorded on May 7, 2o17.
In this Bible study, Brian Watson presents a number of tips on how to read the Bible.
In a recent Bible study, Pastor Brian Watson taught about what the Bible is and what the Bible does. If we understand what kind of book the Bible is (and what kind of book it isn’t) and if we understand what the Bible does to us when we read it, we’ll read the Bible better. This is the first of a series of classes on how to read the Bible well.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches an Easter message on Job 42:7-17, which foreshadows God’s restoration of the world. The new creation is possible because of Jesus’ resurrection. That event gives us certainty that one day God will make the world into a paradise. Listen to learn more about what’s wrong with the world, why we need Jesus, and the great hope that Jesus gives us.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on a key portion of the book of Job. What happens when God speaks to Job? Listen to learn about the greatness, wisdom, authority, and grace of God. This is the true God, not a “god” of our imagination or desires.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Elihu’s speeches in Job 32-37. These speeches show the importance of humility when doing theology. We need to admit what we don’t know and be sure of what we do. We need to know what God has and hasn’t revealed to us.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on chapters 29-31 in the book of Job. Job recalls his old life, describes his current miseries, and swears that he is innocent. Do our lives match up with Job’s? Can we say that we have lived a good life? What last words would we say about ourselves? What last words would others say about us? What last words would we say before the judgment seat of God? How can we be right in God’s eyes? These questions are explored.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Job 28 about wisdom. True wisdom cannot be discovered on our own. We need God to reveal true wisdom to us. Wisdom is the art of living well, of living a life that matches reality, a life that lines up with God’s Word.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the book of Job, chapters 22-27. He focuses on the question, “Where is God?” Why does God seem hidden? Why does God seem absent when we’re hurting?
Job asks a very important question: “Where Then Is My Hope?” Where can hope be found in a world in which everyone dies? Where can meaning be found? Pastor Brian Watson tries to answer those questions as he preaches through the second round of dialogue between Job and his friends.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Job 4-14. These chapters show Job in dialogue with his three friends, who accuse him of sins he didn’t commit. How do we respond to other people’s tragedies? How do we respond to our own? When bad things happen to us, we may feel that God is punishing us. How can we be in the right before God?
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Job 3. He shows how Christianity recognizes the pain and suffering in a fallen world and how Christianity invites lament and even wrestling with God. This way of grieving is compared with other views on pain, suffering, and evil. Job lamented his pain and wished he was never born. So did the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus was a man of sorrow who cried and knew what it was like to suffer and lament. Christianity teaches us that it is okay to grieve and lament, and it also shows how we do that in faith and in hope that God will ultimately fix everything.
Pastor Brian Watson begins a sermon series through the book of Job. He shows what happens in the first two chapters, which give us some indication of why there is evil and suffering in the world and how we can respond to it.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches the conclusion to our study of the book of Ruth. Boaz marries Ruth and they have a child, who is to Naomi a redeemer and a restorer of life. This story indicates how God will restore his creation through Jesus. It reminds us of the story of Christmas.
Pastor Brian Watson talks about redemption in the third chapter of the book of Ruth, in the Bible, and in our lives. What would you like restored in your life? What would like to be bought back? The story of Ruth is a story of redemption, and it points to the larger story of redemption in the whole Bible, a story of how God is restoring a broken world, “purchasing” people for himself through Jesus.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Ruth 2. He focuses on three words that sum up what God is doing in this chapter: favor, providence, and kindness. He also shows how Christianity accounts for why we should be generous and kind to one another, and how a competing worldview (naturalism) does not.