The book of Proverbs tells us about those who mock and scoff and how to deal with them. It also tells us how words fitly spoken, words suited to their context, can persuade. Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 20, 2020.
Words matter. They can be used for good or ill. How then can we use our words wisely? The book of Proverbs says a great deal about words used wisely and foolishly. Brian Watson preached this message on those passages on September 13, 2020.
Here is the worship guide for Sunday, September 13, 2020.
The livestream will begin at 10:30 a.m. on our Facebook page.
Welcome and Announcements
Song: “This Is Our God”
Words and music by N. DeGraide, D. Fournier, Z. Jones, D. Pland, and G. Romanacce
God, our Father, full of power, Maker of the heavens, Maker of the world;
forming all things seen and unseen,
truly the Almighty beyond all measured worth. Holy is His Name.
We believe the Lord our God is One, Father, Spirit, Son; this is our God!
We believe forever He will reign. Let the church proclaim: this is our God!
Our Lord Jesus sent to save us, born unto a virgin, lived a perfect life;
greatly suffered, dying for us. From the grave He’s risen, seated now on high.
Holy is His Name.
We believe the Lord our God is One, Father, Spirit, Son; this is our God!
We believe forever He will reign. Let the church proclaim: this is our God!
Jesus will come back again to judge the living and the dead,
usher in the age to come; let everyone sing “amen.”
Jesus will come back again to judge the living and the dead,
usher in the age to come; let everyone sing “amen,”
let everyone sing “amen.”
Spirit, holy, One in glory, speaking through the prophets, empowering the Church;
life is given by and through Him, with the Son and Father, worshipped and adored.
Holy is His Name.
We believe the Lord our God is One, Father, Spirit, Son; this is our God!
We believe forever He will reign. Let the church proclaim: this is our God!
Hymn: “Speak, O Lord”
Words and music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
to receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
that the light of Christ might be seen today
in our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
all Your purposes for Your glory.
Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
holy reverence, true humility.
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
in the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail,
let their truth prevail over unbelief.
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us.
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
that will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
and by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
and the earth is filled with Your glory.
Scripture Reading and Prayer:
Psalm 150 (ESV)
1 Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty heavens!
2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his excellent greatness!
3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with sounding cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
There are many verses in the book of Proverbs that deal with words. Here are most of them arranged by topic. We will not read all of these this morning.
Proverbs 30:5–6 (ESV)
5 Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
6 Do not add to his words,
lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.
Wisdom vs. folly in speech
Proverbs 10:31–32 (ESV)
31 The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom,
but the perverse tongue will be cut off.
32 The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable,
but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.
Proverbs 14:7 (ESV)
Leave the presence of a fool,
for there you do not meet words of knowledge.
Proverbs 26:9 (ESV)
Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Words are a life and death matter
Proverbs 14:3 (ESV)
By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back,
but the lips of the wise will preserve them.
Proverbs 14:25 (ESV)
A truthful witness saves lives,
but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.
Proverbs 15:4 (ESV)
A gentle tongue is a tree of life,
but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
Proverbs 18:6–8 (ESV)
6 A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating.
7 A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
and his lips are a snare to his soul.
Proverbs 18:20–21 (ESV)
20 From the fruit of a man’s mouth his stomach is satisfied;
he is satisfied by the yield of his lips.
21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.
Wise ways of speaking
Proverbs 18:13 (ESV)
If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame.
Proverbs 10:18–20 (ESV)
18 The one who conceals hatred has lying lips,
and whoever utters slander is a fool.
19 When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.
20 The tongue of the righteous is choice silver;
the heart of the wicked is of little worth.
Proverbs 11:12–13 (ESV)
12 Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.
Proverbs 13:2–3 (ESV)
2 From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good,
but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.|
3 Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life;
he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.
Proverbs 17:27–28 (ESV)
27 Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
28 Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
Proverbs 21:23 (ESV)
Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue
keeps himself out of trouble.
Proverbs 12:17–19 (ESV)
17 Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence,
but a false witness utters deceit.
18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
19 Truthful lips endure forever,
but a lying tongue is but for a moment.
Proverbs 13:5 (ESV)
The righteous hates falsehood,
but the wicked brings shame and disgrace.
Proverbs 16:13 (ESV)
Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.
Sharing knowledge and wisdom
Proverbs 15:2 (ESV)
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
Proverbs 15:7 (ESV)
The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
not so the hearts of fools.
Proverbs 18:4 (ESV)
The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters;
the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.
Proverbs 20:15 (ESV)
There is gold and abundance of costly stones,
but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.
Proverbs 15:1 (ESV)
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
Building others up
Proverbs 22:11 (ESV)
He who loves purity of heart,
and whose speech is gracious, will have the king as his friend.
Knowing how to answer and persuade others
Proverbs 15:28 (ESV)
The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,
but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.
Proverbs 16:21 (ESV)
The wise of heart is called discerning,
and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.
Proverbs 16:23–24 (ESV)
23 The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious
and adds persuasiveness to his lips.
24 Gracious words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
Proverbs 25:11–13 (ESV)
11 A word fitly spoken
is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
12 Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold
is a wise reprover to a listening ear.
13 Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest
is a faithful messenger to those who send him;
he refreshes the soul of his masters.
Proverbs 25:15 (ESV)
With patience a ruler may be persuaded,
and a soft tongue will break a bone.
Proverbs 26:4–7 (ESV)
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
6 Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool
cuts off his own feet and drinks violence.
7 Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless,
is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Defending the oppressed
Proverbs 31:8–9 (ESV)
8 Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9 Open your mouth, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Foolish ways of speaking
Proverbs 26:17–26 (ESV)
17 Whoever meddles in a quarrel not his own
is like one who takes a passing dog by the ears.
18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
19 is the man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I am only joking!”
20 For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
21 As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
22 The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body.
23 Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel
are fervent lips with an evil heart.
24 Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips
and harbors deceit in his heart;
25 when he speaks graciously, believe him not,
for there are seven abominations in his heart;
26 though his hatred be covered with deception,
his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Speaking hateful words (tearing others down)
Proverbs 10:18 (ESV)
The one who conceals hatred has lying lips,
and whoever utters slander is a fool.
Proverbs 11:12–13 (ESV)
12 Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense,
but a man of understanding remains silent.
13 Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.
Proverbs 25:23 (ESV)
The north wind brings forth rain,
and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.
Speaking rash words
See Proverbs 12:18 above
Proverbs 20:25 (ESV)
It is a snare to say rashly, “It is holy,”
and to reflect only after making vows.
Proverbs 29:20 (ESV)
Do you see a man who is hasty in his words?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.
Speaking words that divide
Proverbs 16:27–28 (ESV)
27 A worthless man plots evil,
and his speech is like a scorching fire.
28 A dishonest man spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.
Telling lies (and repeating that which isn’t true)
See Proverbs 12:17, 19 above
Proverbs 12:22–23 (ESV)
22 Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
but those who act faithfully are his delight.
23 A prudent man conceals knowledge,
but the heart of fools proclaims folly.
Proverbs 14:5 (ESV)
A faithful witness does not lie,
but a false witness breathes out lies.
Proverbs 17:4 (ESV)
An evildoer listens to wicked lips,
and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.
Proverbs 17:20 (ESV)
A man of crooked heart does not discover good,
and one with a dishonest tongue falls into calamity.
Proverbs 19:1 (ESV)
Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity
than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.
Proverbs 21:28 (ESV)
A false witness will perish,
but the word of a man who hears will endure.
Proverbs 25:18 (ESV)
A man who bears false witness against his neighbor
is like a war club, or a sword, or a sharp arrow.
Proverbs 26:28 (ESV)
A lying tongue hates its victims,
and a flattering mouth works ruin.
Proverbs 28:23 (ESV)
Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor
than he who flatters with his tongue.
Gossiping and slandering
Proverbs 18:8 (ESV)
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body.
Proverbs 17:9 (ESV)
Whoever covers an offense seeks love,
but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.
Proverbs 20:19 (ESV)
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a simple babbler.
Proverbs 25:9–10 (ESV)
9 Argue your case with your neighbor himself,
and do not reveal another’s secret,
10 lest he who hears you bring shame upon you,
and your ill repute have no end.
Proverbs 27:2 (ESV)
Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
a stranger, and not your own lips.
Proverbs 29:11 (ESV)
A fool gives full vent to his spirit,
but a wise man quietly holds it back.
Proverbs 10:8 (ESV)
The wise of heart will receive commandments,
but a babbling fool will come to ruin.
Song: “Never Cease to Praise”
Words and music by Jeff Bourque
May we run this race, may we keep the faith,
may our eyes be fixed on Jesus,
that we’ll not lose heart in our struggle with sin,
and through suffering know endurance.
May we arm ourselves with the mind of Christ
to rejoice in trials and be not surprised.
May our hearts be so consumed by You
that we never cease to praise.
May our company be the saints You’ve called,
may we all stand firm in one spirit,
that the gospel’s truth may resound on earth,
that all living things may hear it.
May the fruits of faith mark the path we trod
through the life of Christ to the glory of God.
May our hearts be so consumed by You
that we never cease to praise.
May the words we share be Your grace and peace.
May our tongues speak Your proclamations
that the many parts of the body of Christ
be affirmed in their right relation.
As we long and wait for the groom to come,
may we learn to love, and spur each other on.
May our hearts be so consumed by You
that we never cease to praise.
When that day arrives, and our race is won,
when our griefs give way to deliverance,
we will fully know, as we’re fully known,
all our groans will end as new songs begin.
And a multitude from every tribe and tongue,
wearing robes of white, will stand before Your throne,
And our hearts will be so consumed by You
that we’ll never cease to praise!
May our hearts be so consumed by You
that we never cease to praise.
Numbers 6:24–26 (ESV)
24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
To live well, we need real friends. The book of Proverbs highlights the importance of friendship. The good news is that there is someone who can be our friend, who will stick with us through adversity. Brian Watson preached this sermon on August 30, 2020.
Anger is a common and explosive emotion. The Bible warns against anger, but there is a proper place for it. Find out how to be angry (and not be angry) in a godly way. Brian Watson preached this message on August 23, 2020.
A person without self-control is open to attacks from without and within. This is certainly true in the area of lust. Brian Watson preached this message on August 9, 2020.
Wisdom would has us eat and drink joyfully, gratefully, and in moderation. Yet there are many ways to abuse food and drink. Find out what the Bible has to say on these matters by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on August 2, 2020.
What does the Bible say about greed? How do we avoid greed? Brian Watson preached this message on July 26, 2020.
Continuing our study of the seven deadly sins, or seven root vices, we look at envy. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on July 19, 2020.
Pride may very well be the root of all evil and sin. Not surprisingly, Proverbs mentions the problem of pride. Find out what the Bible says about the problem of pride as well as what it says about the solution to pride. Brian Watson preached this message on July 12, 2020.
Both wisdom and folly call to us. How do we know which is which? To whom are we listening and responding to? Learn how to discern between wisdom and folly by fearing the Lord. Brian Watson preached this message on July 5, 2020.
God’s wisdom calls to us, offering life. This wisdom is worth more than the world’s greatest riches. We can have it if we respond to wisdom’s call. Are we listening? Are we responding? Brian Watson preached this sermon on June 28, 2020.
One of the great traps in life is sexual sin. Find out what wisdom says about sex and marriage and temptation by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on June 21, 2020.
God hates those who sow discord. What creates division? Lies and gossip, as well as failing to pay our debts and to do work. Find out what wisdom God gives us concerning debt, work, and divisiveness, as well as how Jesus is the solution for our failures in these areas. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message, on Proverbs 6:1-19, on June 14, 2020.
Solomon warns his son to stay away from a forbidden woman and to find enjoyment in his own wife. How does this apply to all of us, both men and women? Listen to find out. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on June 7, 2020.
God created the universe by his wisdom. Because God is all-wise and all-knowing, and because he created life to function a certain way, the wise person listens to God’s word, leans on God’s understanding, and does life on God’s terms. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Proverbs 3 on May 24, 2020.
How do we learn? How do we become wise? We must seek wisdom and treasure it, yet it is God who gives wisdom and enables us to seek it. Brian Watson preached this message on Proverbs 2 on May 17, 2020.
We are flooded with information and misinformati0n. What we need is not always more facts. We need wisdom to learn how to live life well and to interpret what we experience. Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord, who is the source of wisdom. Brian Watson preached this message on May 10, 2020.
Many of us have been spending more time at home than we’re used to spending. Some of us have spent more time at home than we want to spend. A few weeks ago, my wife said she felt like she was “in prison.” Isn’t it strange to think that we don’t feel at home while at home? Shouldn’t home be where we feel best?
Perhaps what we’re longing for is something more than being home. Perhaps we’re longing to be in our real home, the place where we really feel best.
C. S. Lewis addressed this issue in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” He said that we have this “desire for our own far-off country,” our real home. What we’re longing for cannot be found in this world. But still we try to find it here and now. We try to something that will satisfy our longings in beauty and pleasures. Some of us may try to find what we’re looking for in the past. If only we could back, then everything would be right. Lewis says, “But this is all a cheat. . . . These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
We all need a people, a place, and a purpose. Without those things, we will never be satisfied. We were made to be God’s people, to dwell with him, and to live for him. What we really need to be satisfied is a right relationship with God. We were made for God. Being with him is our true home. Taking pleasure in praising him is our purpose. As Augustine prayed over sixteen hundred years ago, “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.” 
The story of the Bible is a story about leaving home and getting lost in our wanderings. It is a story about God calling us back home. He sends things into our lives to get our attention, to summon us back to himself—if only we would listen and return to him. It is a story about God coming to take us back home. And the end of the Bible is a depiction of that glorious homecoming, when all things will finally be well.
Today, we’re going to focus on the part where God sends things into our lives to call us back to himself. I think that’s appropriate in the age of the coronavirus. I don’t know exactly why this virus exists, but I think it’s possible that God is using this event to get our attention, to remind us of how much we need him.
Today we’re going to look at the book of Amos, from the Old Testament. Amos is one of the so-called “minor prophets.” However, I wouldn’t use that name. Some people refer to the “major prophets,” like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They use that name because these are some of the longest books in the Bible. And then they refer to the “minor prophets,” the last twelve books of the Bible, which are significantly shorter. But it’s a mistake to think of these books as “minor.” They are very important.
Let’s get a little historical background for this book. It begins with these words:
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake (Amos 1:1).
Amos was a shepherd who lived in the eighth century B.C. During this time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and during this time Jeroboam II was king (793–753 B.C.). The southern kingdom was called Judah, and during this time Uzziah was king (791–740 B.C.). Both kings reigned for over forty years, which meant that this was a time of unusual stability. It was also “a period of unprecedented prosperity.” Both kingdoms were wealthy. But these kingdoms were surrounded by enemies. In particular, the northern kingdom was threatened by the Assyrian empire, which was becoming the world’s superpower.
The book begins with a word of judgment against the nations around Israel and Judah. This is what the second verse of the book says:
And he said:
“The Lord roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2).
Amos is sharing a word of judgment against the nations, a word from God, whose voice “roars” from Jerusalem.
First, there is a warning against Syria, represented by their capital city of Damascus (Amos 1:3–5). This was the country north of Israel. Then, there is a warning against the Philistines who lived to the west (Amos 1:6–8). There is also a word of judgment against Tyre, also to the west (Amos 1:9–10). Then, God promises to punish nations to the east: Edom (Amos 1:11–12), Ammon, (Amos 1:13–15), and Moab (Amos 2:1–3).
Why was God going to punish these nations? The Philistines helped Edom by exiling Israelites there (Amos 1:6). The Edomites fought against Israel (Amos 1:11). And the Ammonites did, too. In fact, Amos says “they have ripped open pregnant women” (Amos 1:13). That’s how brutal war can be.
Now, if you lived in Amos’s day, and you lived in Judah and Israel, you would be happy to hear that God’s judgment was coming against these nations. You would think, “Finally, God is doing something to punish these people!” It would be like a Christian who is a Republican hearing that God is going to punish Democrats. God was finally going to punish all the enemies that surrounded Israel.
But then Amos delivers some shocking news. God is going to punish Judah (Amos 2:4–5) and Israel (Amos 2:6–15). Why? Look at Amos 2:4–5:
4 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Judah,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.
5 So I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.”
Judah rejected God’s word, his law. They didn’t keep his commandments.
Then, look at Amos 2:6–8:
6 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;|
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
The rich and powerful in Israel bought and sold people. They “trampled the poor.” There was also sexual immorality. Father and son had sex with the same woman. This might have been connected to pagan worship practices. Strange as it may seem, sex was part of the worship in some religions. And the people committed idolatry, which is spiritual adultery. God was supposed to be their only object of worship, but they cheated on him. They worshiped at all kinds of altars built to worship foreign gods.
These are specific charges against a specific people at a specific time and place, but these are some of the major sins in the Bible: using and oppressing people, usually through some kind of economic means; committing sexual immorality; and worship false gods. In fact, you could say that misusing money means that your god is money. Having sex outside of the only proper context for sex—marriage between a man and a woman—means that sex is your god. When anything other than the true God becomes the most important thing in our life, the thing that causes us to love, trust, and obey it, that is our god. That is what we’re worshiping. But we were made for God. And God has every right to punish us when we’re destroying ourselves by failing to live according to his design.
Failing to love God and live for him is also a failure to acknowledge what he’s done for us. God says that he brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and sustained them until he led them to their own land (Amos 2:10). For all of us, he has given us life and sustains our lives. He is our Maker, the one who sustains every breath and heartbeat, every second that we live. Yet we run away from him.
In chapter 3, we read this:
1 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
2 “You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;|
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities (Amos 3:1–2).
God reminds Israel that he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And he says that of all the people on the earth, they alone were the ones he “knew.” Now, God is omniscient. He knows everything. He knows everything about us. What this means is that the Israelites were the only ones he made a covenant with. He revealed himself to them. He gave them promises that were tied to his commandments. If they would trust him and live life on his terms, they would live. But they didn’t.
So, God says, because you were my special people and turned away from me, I will punish you. The reason why they are going to be punished is because they should have known better. God had been exceedingly kind to them, and they didn’t appreciate him.
So, God warns them of punishment, punishment that will come through their enemies. He wants them to know that when enemies defeat their cities, it is because he has brought that about. In Amos 3:6, God says,
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
Nothing happens unless God has somehow planned it, or even caused it, to occur. That was true of the judgment that would come upon Israel.
But God doesn’t punish because he is unloving. He punishes in order to correct us. He was sending disaster upon Israel to get their attention.
Let’s look at Amos 4:6–13:
6 “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
7 “I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
8 so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
9 “I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!
God gave his people famine, bad crops, pestilence, and military defeat—“yet you did not return to me.” That is such as sad refrain. God caused these things to fall upon Israel so that they would return to him, but they didn’t.
I want us to see that God has the power to control all these events. He controls the weather. He causes rain to fall, and he also causes drought. He can direct kings and armies. He uses these things to bring people back to himself.
Now, you may think, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament. God in the New Testament wouldn’t do such a thing.” But look at Luke 13:1–5:
1 There were some present at that very time who told him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
People tell Jesus that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Jews. That’s a form of moral evil, the kind of evil that people do to each other. Jesus asks if this happened because these Jews were worse sinners. The answer is “no.” And he says something like that will happen to everyone who doesn’t repent, who doesn’t turn to God. Then Jesus mentions how eighteen people died when a tower fell. We don’t know why the tower fell. Maybe it fell because it was poorly made. Perhaps the people who made it made it on the cheap, or they didn’t calculate how strong the tower needed to be. Perhaps it was a minor earthquake that caused the tower to fall. It could have been a form of natural evil, the bad things that happen in nature. Again, he says that the people who died that way weren’t worse sinners. But everyone who fails to repent, to turn back to God, will experience something similar.
In short, every time that some evil occurs, it is a reminder to turn back to God. The reason why these evils occur is that humans turned away from God from the very beginning. God made us to love, trust, and obey him and we don’t do that. We want to be our own gods and goddesses. So, God uses evils to punish us, to get our attention, to cause us to turn back to him.
This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes,
What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t withhold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
So, after these words of warning in Amos, God says to Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4). “Seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6). And,
14 Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15 Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14–15).
God tells the people to seek him, to seek good and forsake evil, so that they may live. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can return to God by doing good things. We cannot get to God through our own efforts. We know this from the rest of the Bible. Our sin, our rebellion against God, runs deep and it taints every part of us and everything we do. We can’t drive out the evil from within us. But if we seek God, we will want to do what is good.
But when we return to God, it’s more than just paying lip service. God wants more than just for us to do a few religious things. He wants our hearts. He wants changed lives. Look at Amos 5:21–24:
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One of the sins of Israel was religious hypocrisy. They thought they could worship God and also worship other gods. They thought they could go through the motions by praying and singing and offering sacrifices to God, and then go and live like all the pagan nations around them. But that isn’t pleasing to God. In fact, God says he hates that. He hates religious festivals when they aren’t done from the heart. He hates singing, even songs that are about him, if it comes from unclean lips. He doesn’t want sacrifices made by people who aren’t sacrificing their whole lives. Instead, God wants people to love him and to live according to his word. That’s what justice is.
You may notice that Amos quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. here. That’s a joke, of course. Martin Luther King quoted Amos as a call to justice. But this justice isn’t just “social” justice. There’s only one form of justice in the Bible, and that is loving God and loving people the way that God wants us to. If we do justice in the public square but do immoral things in our private lives, that isn’t justice. It won’t do to provide for the poor and then engage in sexual immorality, for example. God isn’t impressed by that. He sees our condition. He demands righteousness.
And that leaves us in a bind. We aren’t perfectly righteous. We are not just. Even when we try to praise God, there’s still some taint of sin. Amos knew this. When he was shown visions of judgment in chapter 7, he says, “O Lord God, please forgive!”
How can we be forgiven by God? Perhaps the clue comes in Amos. In chapter 5, God says there will be a “day of the Lord,” a day of “darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18). This will be a day of punishment, but it’s also a day of salvation. In chapter 8, we read these words:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9)
On the day of the Lord, a day of punishment and a day of salvation, the sun will go down at noon. Darkness will cover the earth at a time when there should be broad daylight.
This day of the Lord came almost three thousand years ago, when the only righteous man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, was put to death. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He came from a far-off country, from heaven, to bring people back to their God. He did this by living the perfect life that we should live but don’t, and then by dying in our place, taking the punishment for our sin that we deserve. When Jesus was crucified, darkness came upon the land at noon, a sign that he was enduring the wrath of God that we have earned. He didn’t do this for everyone. Only those who turn to Jesus in faith, who seek the Lord, are forgiven of their sins and will live with God forever.
We know Jesus is the one who brings us back home to God because in chapter 9 of Amos, God promises that after punishment, there will be a day of rebuilding. Look at Amos 9:11–12:
11 “In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this.
God promises to rebuild “the booth of David.” That’s a reference to David’s kingdom. David, the second king of Israel, was a great king. But David had already died, and his kingdom was divided. Yet God promised that a descendant of David would come and build a kingdom that will never end. This perfect king would defeat Israel’s enemies and bring about peace and justice that would last forever. We know from the New Testament that Jesus is that King. And he is calling a remnant of people “from all nations” into his kingdom. This passage is quoted in the Acts 15 when Jewish Christians are trying to figure out how Gentile Christians should live. The point is that the true Israel is everyone—Jew, Gentile, American, Chinese, black, white, male, female, rich, poor—who is united to Jesus by faith.
And those people will go home. They will live with God forever in a perfect world. Look at the end of the book, Amos 9:13–15:
13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,|
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.
This garden imagery reminds us of the garden of Eden, where humanity was first “planted.” We were kicked out of the garden because we didn’t love, trust, and obey God. How do we get back to the garden? Jesus. We’re told that he will come back to earth one day to make everything right. Those who trust in him will live in this perfect world. The images here are just a taste of what this perfect world will be like, a world of prosperity and pleasure. But most importantly, it will be home because our God dwells there.
Why do things like viruses occur? Why is the world disrupted economically? We could provide naturalistic answers, answers that only appeal to what we can see with our own eyes. Or, we could say, “Well, there’s no good reason.” Or, we could spend our time blaming politicians. But ultimately, God sends these things to get our attention. They are the megaphone he uses to rouse a deaf world. Are we listening? Are we turning back to God?
God lets us go our own way, running away from him to pursue our false gods. But God uses difficult events to bring us back to him. Will we answer his call? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to God while there is time. Learn about Jesus and follow him. If you want to know what that would look like in your life, send me a message and I’ll help you any way that I can. Christians, take God seriously. Don’t just pay him lip service. He deserves more than that.
Turn to God while there is time. If we continue to run away from God, he may very well let us go our own way—forever. And that will be a dreadful thing. Even in the book of Amos, there is a famine that is worse than lack of food, and there is a drought that is worse than lack of water. Amos 8:11 says,
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
The most horrifying thing is not to have God in your life, not to hear from him. Now, if you’re not a Christian, you may think that you don’t have God in your life and that you don’t hear from him now. But that’s not true. God is everywhere and all of creation speaks of God (Ps. 19:1–6). But there will be a day when all who have rejected God will be removed from him entirely. To be cut off from God means to be cut off from love, beauty, truth, light, and life. It’s worse than we can ever imagine.
But God has come to do everything you need to be put back into a right relationship with him. And right now, he is calling you back home. Come to Jesus, the truth, the life, and the way back to your God.
- C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper One, 2001), 29. ↑
- Ibid., 30–31. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 423. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
The book of Amos tells us that God brings difficult things into our lives to turn us back to him. Are we listening? Will we turn to God and find our way home, or will we resist him still? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on May 3, 2020.
When I was a child, there were many things that I did not understand about life, about God, and about church. One of those things was the Lord’s Supper. I remember going to church, where once a month some broken pieces of bread were passed around on shiny plates and thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice were distributed. The pastor would say, “The body of Christ, broken for you. Take and eat,” and, “The blood of Christ, shed for you. Take and drink.” I had no idea what he meant by eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, but I went along with the program and I didn’t ask any questions.
Now that I’ve matured, I understand the Lord’s Supper better and I hope that you do, too. Yet I think that the taking of the Lord’s Supper isn’t understood by many. And this practice probably seems very bizarre to non-Christians. What are we doing when we take this little bit of food and this little bit of drink? Why do we do it? What does it all mean?
What is the Lord’s Supper? It’s one of two ordinances, sometimes called sacraments, that the church observes. The other is baptism. According to the Puritan, Thomas Watson, “The sacrament is a visible sermon. . . . The Word is a trumpet to proclaim Christ, the sacrament is a glass to represent him.” Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are visible sermons, pictures of what Jesus has done for us.
The Lord’s Supper presents a visible picture of the gospel, specifically Jesus’ substitutionary, atoning death. He died in our place, as our substitute, to atone for our sins. Yet there is more to the Lord’s Supper than this. The Lord’s Supper is based on the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. At this meal, all the great themes of the Bible coalesce, for the Last Supper had associations with the past, present, and future. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is rooted in history; it affects our present; and it contains promises for our future.
Today, we’re returning to the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. We’re beginning chapter 22. Today, we’re going to look at the passages related to Jesus’ last Passover meal that he shared with his disciples before he died on the next day. Then, in the next sermon, I’ll look at the verses related to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
So, we’ll begin with Luke 22:1, which says, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”
What was the Passover? Let us review some Old Testament history.
In Genesis, God chose Abraham and his family as the people he would use to bless the world. At the end of Genesis, this family ends up in Egypt, where Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, is second in command. At the beginning of Exodus, something has changed. About 400 years have passed by and the Israelites have multiplied greatly, but they no longer find favor in the Egyptians’ eyes. Instead, the Egyptians oppress and enslave them. God looks upon them with compassion and, because of his covenant with Abraham, he prepares to deliver them through the ministry of Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses because of the hardness of his heart, so God hits the Egyptians with nine plagues. Pharaoh still refuses to let the Israelites go, so God sends a tenth and final plague.
This time, all the firstborn in Egypt will die. The first nine plagues did not affect the Israelites, but this time, in order to avoid the tenth plague, they must do something. They are to take male, year-old, unblemished lambs, slaughter them, and place some of their blood on their door frames. When God comes to kill all the firstborn in Egypt, he will pass over the houses of the Israelites because of the blood. God tells them to commemorate this occasion by roasting the meat of the lambs and eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are to do this with their belts fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staffs in hand, because they will soon leave Egypt, for Pharaoh will now let them go. God tells them to keep this feast once a year to remember the event. The Passover is so important that God even tells them that the month of this event will now be the first month of their calendar year.
So, that’s what the Passover was. Now, I’m going to skip to verse 7. We’ll come back to verses 2–6 in the next sermon in this series. Here are verses 7–13:
7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” 9 They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” 10 He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
Jesus is about to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. He sends two of his closest followers, Peter and John, to prepare this meal, which had to be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem.
It seems that Jesus has made prior arrangements to have the meal in an upper room. Peter and John would have had to prepare a lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, the elements of the original Passover meal. Other elements were added over the years: a bowl of saltwater, a fruit puree or sauce, and four cups of diluted wine. Each element was very symbolic. The lamb reminded them of the sacrifice needed to be saved. The Israelites were sinners like the Egyptians, and the only way to be spared God’s judgment against sin was for someone to die in their place. The unleavened bread reminded them of God’s swift deliverance of his people—there wasn’t time for the bread to rise. The herbs reminded them of the bitterness of their slavery. The saltwater reminded them of tears shed in captivity as well as the Red Sea. The fruit paste reminded them of the clay used to make bricks for the Egyptians. And the four cups of wine symbolized the promises found in Exodus 6:6–7, that God would deliver them from slavery, that he would judge the Egyptians, that they would have a special relationship with God (“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”), and that they would know that he is “the Lord your God.”
Normally, a family would eat this meal together. Jesus chose to share it with his disciples. They had become his family. During the Passover meal, there would be a time when the host of the meal recalled the Passover narrative, explaining the redemptive history behind the feast and expressing thanksgiving. Listen to this statement from the collection of Jewish oral traditions known as the Mishnah. The parallels with our redemption should be obvious:
Therefore are we bound to give thanks, to praise, to glorify, to honour, to exalt, to extol, and to bless him who wrought all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us out from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption, so let us say before him the Hallelujah.
The celebration would include the singing of Psalms 113 through 118. After the fourth glass of wine, the meal would end, and the guests were supposed to spend the night in prayer.
Before we look at verses 14–20, allow me to make an observation. It is no coincidence that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. The Passover and the whole Exodus form the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament. There are numerous references to this event in the Old Testament as well as the New. You can find it mentioned throughout the historical books, there are several Psalms devoted to it, and the prophets refer to this event repeatedly. In short, the Exodus proved that God does mighty acts to save his people.
By connecting the Last Supper to the Passover, God is showing us the relationship between the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament and the greatest act of redemption. He is showing us how his plan of redemption spans across the Old and New Testaments.
God is sovereign over history. He can make history do what he wants. Throughout history, he revealed himself and his plans gradually, through not only his word but also through people, events, and institutions that we find in the Old Testament. Certain events in the Old Testament anticipate greater events in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, we see certain types, or foreshadows, that anticipate the work of Jesus. We see certain people in the Old Testament that resemble Christ, but they are imperfect saviors, prophets, priests, and kings. We see acts of redemption in the Old Testament, but they do not conquer sin and death. We also see acts of judgment in the Old Testament, often coupled with those acts of redemption, though they are not the final judgment that will occur when Jesus returns to Earth. These types in the Old Testament taught the people of that time about God and gave them clues that greater events were going to occur in the future. For us, on this side of the cross, they provide a context for Jesus’ ministry, so that we can see how he fulfilled all the promises of God in the Old Testament.
Here are a few things we can learn, as Christians, from the Passover. One, it anticipated Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We know this because the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter tells us that we were ransomed from sin “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). The redemption of the Israelites out of Egypt was accomplished through a blood sacrifice. Though they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians, the Passover did not deal with their slavery to sin. No animal sacrifice could atone for human sin. Therefore, the Passover was an incomplete redemption and a mere foretaste of Jesus’ greater, perfect redemption.
Two, the Passover and the Exodus show us that God is powerful, that he performs amazing acts of redemption, and that he is to be feared. For those of you familiar with the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the image of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, you know how powerful and frightening God can be. God is still a holy and jealous God. He is still a consuming fire. It is important that we still have that image of God.
Three, we see that God graciously saved his people even though they were sinful. The Israelites were often not any better than the people of other nations. God simply decided to be gracious to them. Their salvation was not based on their obedience and their goodness, and neither is ours.
Four, in Exodus, there is a phrase that God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 7:15; 8:1, 20; 9:1). God freed the Israelites from the yoke of slavery to the Egyptians, but they were not rescued so that they could live for themselves. If you have faith in Christ, you are freed from slavery to sin, but you still have a master. Jesus says, “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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). We are freed from the yoke of sin in order to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.
It’s important to understand the Passover and what it means for us. Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus shares this meal with his disciples. Let’s read verses 14–20:
14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Jesus wanted this last opportunity to teach his disciples the significance of his impending death. He knows he is about to die, and yet he is in complete control. In fact, his vague directions to Peter and John in the previous section were probably intentional: he wanted to make sure that Judas did not know the address of this upper room so that the meal would not be interrupted by a premature arrest. (We’ll talk more about this next time.)
Jesus is acting as host of the Passover meal, yet instead of recounting the Exodus story, he starts to teach them about the theological significance of his death. Jesus tells his disciples that he will not eat this meal again until “it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” He will not share in such a meal until the kingdom is consummated, when he returns.
Then, Jesus takes one cup and gives it to his disciples. This is probably either the first or second of the four cups of wine of the Passover meal. It is a common cup that he shares with his disciples, just as it is a common loaf of bread. This meal scene is one of intimacy and unity. It seems completely natural to read about people eating, but we must remember that Jesus is not just a man; he’s also God. God is eating with humans! God dwells among us and desires close fellowship with us. What an amazing idea!
In verse 18, Jesus says he “will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” The kingdom was inaugurated with Jesus’ first coming, but it will not come in its fullest form until he returns and recreates the universe to be Paradise. In this passage, Jesus twice refers to a future fulfillment of the kingdom of God. He wants his disciples to know that, even though he will die, death will not have the last word.
Then, Jesus takes the bread and gives it to his disciples. Here, Jesus begins to reinterpret the elements of the Passover meal in a radical way. The bread and the wine of the Passover meal will correspond to Jesus’ death.
Jesus takes the bread, a symbol of life and sustenance, and makes it a symbol of his death. Elsewhere, Jesus had called himself the bread of life (John 6:35, 48) because he is the source of eternal life. In order to impart that life to those who have faith in him, his body would have to be broken. Animals die so we can eat their flesh. Grain is crushed so that we can live. Even grapes were crushed so that their juice could be extracted and fermented. It is possible that the references to bread being broken and wine being poured out are references to a famous passage in Isaiah 53, one that we looked at two weeks ago. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” A few verses later, we read, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). God the Father had to pour out his wrath on someone, for sin must not go unpunished. God is a perfect judge. He cannot let evil go unchecked. But God is also gracious. He gave his Son to take the punishment that his people deserve. And willingly Jesus took that punishment in our place. He was crushed so that we don’t have to be. That was God’s will. It was always his plan.
Notice that Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Israelites were supposed to remember the Passover, but when they did, they didn’t just bring a past event to mind. Rather, they saw themselves as participants in the Exodus. In that way, it affected their present life. They also anticipated a future redemption that would come through the Messiah. For us, we should remember Jesus’ death, not in order simply to review history, but in order for our lives to be changed. We, too, should also look forward to Christ’s return, when he makes all things new.
We should also notice that, in saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus isn’t saying, “Do this in order to be saved,” or, “Do this to receive more grace.” Catholics believe that the eucharist (their word for the Lord’s Supper) imparts grace and is a key part of salvation. But Jesus doesn’t say anything like that.
Finally, Jesus distributes the cup, which commentators agree corresponds to the third cup of the Passover meal. He says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The “pouring out” likely refers to Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” In the Bible, blood represents life (Lev. 17:11). In order to bear the sins of many, Jesus had to die in the place of many. Because of our sin, we should die eternally, yet Jesus took our sin and nailed it to the cross, so that we could be credited his righteousness. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
We also come to the important idea of the covenant. A covenant is a bit like a contract. It is a binding commitment that is made unilaterally, which is to say there is no negotiating. God sets the terms of the agreement and he faithfully keeps his end of the arrangement. There are many covenants in the Bible: ones made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as the new covenant. The two covenants in view here are the “old covenant,” the one made through Moses at Mount Sinai, and the new covenant.
After God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them. He said that if they obeyed him, then they would be his “treasured possession among all peoples” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (see Exod. 19:4–6). God then gave Moses and the Israelites the Ten Commandments as well as many other laws. This covenant was based on a condition: if the people obeyed those laws, then they would be God’s treasured possession.
After the law was given, a ceremony was held to inaugurate this covenant. In Exodus 24, Moses and the people offer animal sacrifices and Moses reads them the law. The people said they would obey the law. Then something very strange happens: Moses takes some of the blood of those animal sacrifices and threw it on the people. There are two important ideas behind this strange event: One, the people of Israel were God’s people because they were made clean from a blood sacrifice. Two, if they failed to obey the terms of the covenant, the result would be the shedding of blood—their blood! Most covenants began with blood, a reminder of the consequences of breaking that contract. And if that contract was broken, blood would be shed.
We know from the Old Testament that Israel was not perfectly obedient to God. In fact, they were often wildly disobedient. The same is true of all human beings. We often ignore God instead of living for him. We fail to love God as we should. We fail to love one another. We don’t do life on God’s terms; instead, we act as if were gods.
In the end, the old covenant simply didn’t work. There’s no way that mere human beings could obey its terms. Therefore, God would establish a new covenant. This was promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34, but there are other passages in the Old Testament prophets that speak of a new covenant. In short, the new covenant promised that all of God’s people would be forgiven of sin, would truly know God because they have a right relationship with him, and would have God’s laws written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God.
The new covenant is better than the old covenant. But that was by design. God’s plan is perfect. He knew his people could not obey the old covenant. God’s intention was to show that only one son person could ever obey that old covenant, and that person was Jesus. The only way the old covenant could be fulfilled was to have God become man and live a life of perfect obedience. He fulfilled the terms of the old covenant. But—and this is the amazing part—though he alone fulfilled those terms, he took on the penalty that covenant breakers deserve. He died on the cross to take away the penalty that we all deserve for our sin.
What Jesus is saying at this Last Supper with his disciples is basically this: “What I’m about to do is the key to God’s eternal plan of redemption. My blood sacrifice will pay the penalty of the old covenant for you, and my blood will usher in a new, fulfilled covenant. People who are part of this covenant will never pay for their sins. Your sins will be forgiven, and you will have new hearts.”
The fact that Jesus asks his disciples to do this in remembrance of him means that he expects that they will take it regularly after his death. We understand that the Lord’s Supper, which we take here once a month, is based on this Last Supper. It is a time to remember that Jesus died for our sins.
What does all of this mean for us? How does this affect our view of the Lord’s Supper? First, we should see how great Jesus is. I hope you now have a deeper understanding of just how central his life, death, and resurrection is to all of history, to God’s plans, and to your life. Jesus is the greatest. He is truly the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of history, and the author and goal of our faith.
Second, food in the Bible is often a symbol for spiritual sustenance. Of course, we need to eat food regularly to live. But we also have spiritual hunger and thirst, a longing for something that the things of this world cannot satisfy. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy the deepest yearnings of your soul. In John 6:27, Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Are you trying to fill your spiritual hunger with Jesus or something else? No money, no job, no other relationship, no amount of pleasures and entertainments will satisfy that spiritual hunger and thirst.
Third, though we’re not told this here, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for God’s people. It doesn’t automatically give you spiritual life. Only faith in Jesus gives you that. And faith in Jesus is trusting in him. That faith should lead to love of Jesus and obedience to him.
Fourth, we’re also told that elsewhere that the Lord’s Supper is a time to examine our lives. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It’s a time for us to ask certain questions, like, “Do I know God? Am I living as his servant? Are there ways that I’m disobeying him? Do I have sins I need to repent of?” If you are not a Christian, I urge you to trust in Jesus. Faith in Jesus is the only way to be spared God’s judgment against your sin, your failure to love and live for God. If you’re not yet a Christian, I would love to talk to you personally about following Jesus. If you’re struggling with sin, I would love to help you in any way I can.
Fourth, the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper call us to be a community. Jesus shared a common cup and a common loaf with his disciples. Though we come to faith in Christ individually, when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we enter the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Are you an active part of the body of Christ? Are you using your spiritual gifts to serve the church? Or do you just come to consume a spiritual product and live life alone? God meant for us to be in relationship with him and with each other. I would encourage all of us to be more involved in the life of this church, to be more committed, to become members. Take ownership of this church. Regard it as your family.
My fifth and final point is this: The Last Supper looked backwards to the Passover. And it looked forward to when Jesus would not only die for his people, but also to when he would return to complete the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. The Lord’s Supper looks back to when Jesus died for us, but it also looks forward to when Jesus will return to make all things right. And when that happens, we who are Christians will eat a meal with God.
There are several places in the Bible where this new creation is pictured as a great meal. We read one of those passages, Isaiah 25, last week. God promised that in his new creation, there would be the finest of feasts. That could be a literal meal—which might be a comfort to those of us who love to eat—or it could symbolize the kind of fellowship that we cannot imagine right now. Either way, God will make all things new, he will eradicate death, and he will offer us the very best food and fellowship that we could ever hope for. At that time, we will commune directly with God. All his people, those who know him, those who have been forgiven of sin, those who have been given the Holy Spirit, will live forever in God’s house.
When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we remember what Jesus did for us: His body was broken and his life drained out so that we don’t have to be broken, so that we can live. And when we take the Lord’s Supper, we experience a foretaste of what will come in the future. We will eat and drink together in the presence of God. We can take the Lord’s Supper with seriousness, remembering that it cost nothing short of the death of the God-man, Jesus Christ, to rescue us from sin and eternal death. But we can also take it with thanksgiving and joy, knowing that God loves us so much that he gave us his Son, and that the Son laid down his life willingly for his people, to bring them back to the table in his house.
- Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (1665; repr., Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2004), 1-2. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Pesahim 10.5, quoted in I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (1980; repr., Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2006), 22. ↑
What is the Lord’s Supper, or communion? Why do we take bits of bread and juice (or, in some churches, wine) and say that these are the body and blood of Christ? Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 22:1, 7-20 on January 5, 2020.
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” Or the song says. Are you feeling it this year? Does it feel wonderful and hap-happy?
When I was a child, I felt the thrill of “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that is. I used to love lights and music and Christmas movies and TV specials and special food and gifts. Especially the gifts. But as I get older, I find those things to feel a lot less special.
Yesterday, I saw a picture that someone posted online. It was of a dumpster that said “EMPTY WHEN FULL.” The joke, of course, was how can a dumpster simultaneously be empty and full? But perhaps that’s the way some of us feel at Christmas. We’re full of food, our lives are full of stuff, our schedules may be full, and our relatives may be full of it, but we feel empty.
For some people, the holidays remind them of what they’ve lost in the past year. The other day, I was writing Christmas cards to people. Two were to people who were now celebrating their first Christmas after the death of a spouse. Another was to someone who lost a spouse the previous year. One was to a couple that lost a child this year. The holidays can highlight what we have, but they can also highlight what we’ve lost.
Many people try to cover up that emptiness and loss. The message of secular Christmas celebrations is, “Be happy.” If you don’t feel happy, the key is to celebrate more, to buy more things, to spend more time with family. The holiday takes on this strange empty meaning. It’s not really about anything other than celebrating celebration, feasting on festiveness, an attempt to buy pieces of peace. It’s about nostalgia and sentimentality and the many dozens of ways that the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels can make Christmas romance movies out of the same basic plot.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Christmas lights, and some Christmas music. I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. I love getting presents. Occasionally, I enjoy spending time with family. It’s not that these things are bad. But I need more than that. I suspect that you do, too. If that’s all there is to Christmas, then it’s just the largest Hallmark holiday, a phony reason to celebrate for celebration’s sake.
Providentially, the real meaning of Christmas is not found in all those trappings. The meaning of Christmas is that God sent his ultimate servant to rescue us. This servant didn’t come to put a feel-good band aid of tinsel over our problems. He didn’t come to fill our emptiness with more food and drink and money. He came to heal us, which required getting to the root of our problems. God loves us so much that he didn’t send us a comedian or entertainer, a politician or a general, an economist or a get-rich-quick adviser. He didn’t manipulate our emotions. Instead, he gave us a Savior, his own Son.
Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus and what he has done for us by looking at passages from the book of Isaiah. We have been studying the Gospel of Luke, which is all about Jesus in a very direct way. But this month, we’re taking a look at some passages from a book about a prophet called Isaiah. God sent a message to his people through a man named Isaiah in the eighth century BC, roughly seven hundred years before Jesus was born. He gave them a message about who he is, what their problem was, and the hope that would come through one person, a special child, a descendant of King David. Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at who God is, our problems of sin and idolatry, and prophesies about a coming king. This week, we’ll look at passages about a servant of God.
The first one is Isaiah 42:1–7:
1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 “I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
God promised Israel that he would send his servant into the world. The Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) would rest upon this servant, empowering him. Though the servant has power, he would be gentle, especially with people who were “bruised reeds,” people who were beat up and knew they needed help. To those people, he would bring comfort. Though he’s gentle, he is strong, and he will work until he brings justice to the whole Earth.
Then, we’re told that the God who has made the whole universe, who gives life and breath to everyone on the Earth, says this about his servant: God will give this servant to his people as a covenant, which is kind of like a contract that establishes a relationship between two parties. The way that God and his people will be related will be through this servant. He will gather the remnant of Israel, God’s people, to himself. He will be a light to all the nations—people from across the globe will come to God through him. The people who are living in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2).
That is the first of four “servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. The next one is in the beginning of chapter 49. Let’s turn there now. Here is Isaiah 49:1–6:
1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
3 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
4 But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”
5 And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Here, God’s servant is called from the womb of his mother. His words will be powerful: his mouth is like a sharp sword. He is called Israel. He is the one who will truly be God’s person. If you read the Old Testament, which is long and complicated, you’ll see that most of it is about a group of people, a nation, called Israel. And it doesn’t take much reading to see that these people are in many ways failures. They were supposed to live for God, worship him, represent him on Earth, and obey him. But they don’t worship God alone; they also worship false gods, which are called idols. They don’t obey God, living according to his commandments and laws. Instead, they often live like everyone else lives. They, like everyone else in the world, deserve condemnation, to be cut off from God forever.
But not this servant. He will be perfect. Yet at first his work will seem to be in vain. His work doesn’t always appear to have accomplished something great. But God said to this servant that he would bring his people back to God. He would be a light to the nations—this is the second time we’ve seen that. He would bring salvation to people throughout the world. That salvation is reconciliation with God. It’s a salvation from the condemnation that their sins have earned them. They will be saved from a broken relationship with God, from rebellion, and from all that comes with it, including death and condemnation. And this salvation will come through this servant.
The third song about this servant comes in the next chapter. Let’s look at chapter 50:4–11:
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.
7 But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
8 He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
9 Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
10 Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11 Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:a
you shall lie down in torment.
The servant says that God has given him wisdom, a tongue that will sustain those who are weary. Again, this man has powerful words, words that not only can cut like a sharp sword, but words that can also heal.
This servant has his ear open to God. He listens to God. He does what God tells him to do. He is not rebellious. He is even obedient in the face of persecution. People will strike him, pull his beard, and spit on him. But this servant didn’t run away from such rough treatment. Because God strengthens him, he is able to face that affliction square on, setting his face like flint toward it. He knows that God will not let him be put to shame. No one will be able to say that he’s guilty. He will be vindicated.
This servant calls all who are living in darkness to come to him in the light, to fear the Lord and to obey his servant. As I said last week, the fear of the Lord isn’t necessarily being afraid of him. Though, if you’re on the wrong side of God, you should be afraid. But the fear of the Lord is having a very healthy, awestruck respect for God. If you know who God truly is, you will fear him, respect him, honor him. And if you do those things, his servant says, you will obey the voice of his servant. You will come to him, the light of the nations, instead of living in darkness. But those who remain in darkness, who think that they can light their own way with their own torches, will lie down in torment. In other words, those who trust that they can cure themselves, who can fix their greatest problem, which is a broken relationship with God and rebellion against him, will not only remain in darkness, but they will be punished.
If we can’t bring ourselves back to God, and if our efforts to do so result only in torment, how can we ever get back to God? As we’ve already seen, the key is the servant of God. But how does this servant make us in the right with God? How does he fix this problem of a broken relationship?
To answer those questions, we must look at the fourth and final song of the servant. This one begins at the end of chapter 52 and runs through all of chapter 53. Let’s first read Isaiah 52:13–15:
13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
We’re told that God’s servant will be exalted. He will be high and lifted up. Yet though he’s exalted, his appearance will be marred. We must remember that this servant will be struck and beaten. He will be battered. But he will “sprinkle many nations.” That means he will cleanse many people, washing them from what defiles them, which, according to the Bible, is sin. His work will be so great that even kings will be rendered speechless by what he will do.
Let’s now look at chapter 53. We’ll read the first three verses:
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
This servant will grow up like a root out of a dry ground, which means that he will be greater than his historical circumstances. His background on Earth will be humble. He won’t look majestic. He won’t look exceptionally beautiful. He will look rather ordinary.
But there’s something more. He will be despised and rejected. He will be a man who knows sorrow and grief. People will hide their faces from him. They will betray him and reject him. And we’re told even this: we esteemed him not. If we saw him on Earth, we would probably reject him.
This servant has a strange combination of qualities. He’s powerful, given strength by the Holy Spirit. He is wise and his words are powerful. They are able to condemn and save. God will be with him and he will not be put to shame. He will be vindicated and declared righteous. Yet he will also suffer and be rejected.
We’re also told that his suffering does something. He doesn’t suffer in some meaningless, pointless way. Look at verses 4–6:
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
This servant will bear our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities, or sins. Though we thought he was rejected by God, condemned and afflicted, the reality was that he was being condemned in our place. His suffering—his being pierced and crushed—was for our sake. He was crushed for our sins, not for his own. The condemnation—the chastisement—that we deserve fell upon him so that we could have peace with God. His wounds heal us. We were like sheep, going astray, wandering from God. Each one of us was like that. But God does something amazing. He takes our sin and lays it on his servant, who suffers in our place.
The reason that we feel empty is that we were made to have a relationship with God. Because that relationship is broken, we have a God-shaped hole within us. We were made to love God and worship him and obey him. But instead of going to God to have that hole filled, we try to fill it up with other stuff, often with things that aren’t necessarily bad. But those things, even good things, weren’t made to fill that hole. So, we’re empty when full. We’re not full of God, but things he made, thinking that we can be satisfied by the gifts instead of the Giver. As Augustine wrote over sixteen hundred years ago: “You [God] 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.” He might have said our hearts are empty until they are filled by God. Until then, we’re a bunch of dumpsters.
Yet this servant is the one who was treated like trash. Look at verses 7–9:
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;|
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
9 And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
He was afflicted, beaten, led to die. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to escape this fate. He was like a sheep led to slaughter. He was cut off from the land of the living, paying for the sins of God’s people. He died among wicked people, and his body was laid in the tomb of a rich man, even though he never did anything wrong. He never did violence to other people. He never said anything deceitful. He only told the truth. He was never selfish. He only loved God and other people. Yet he still was treated like garbage.
But this wasn’t an accident, or just the result of the works of evil people. Look at verses 10–12:
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
This servant suffered because it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. His suffering was an offering for our guilt.
But there’s good news. Even though this servant is crushed and afflicted, led to slaughter, killed and laid in a grave, he will see his days prolonged. He will see his offspring. He will be satisfied. This servant, though he is killed, will live. He will make many to be accounted righteous. He will take away their sin and make them in the right with God. He will also live to intercede for sinners, to go between God and them, to lift them up in prayers to God.
Of course, these servant songs are all about Jesus. He alone is the One sent by God to be a light to the world. He alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. He alone was sent to bear the sins of his people.
Jesus is not just a servant. He is the Son of God. He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are the triune God. But he was sent by the Father to become a human being in a “dry ground,” in humble circumstances. Though he was and is all-powerful, he looked like an ordinary human being. He was conceived in a miraculous way—by a virgin—but otherwise, his background was rather ordinary. He was a carpenter’s son. He grew up in a small town, away from the capital city. He didn’t act like the rulers of the Earth, trying to appear powerful, using their power to their own advantage. He was humble.
He lived the perfect life. He was never rebellious toward God the Father. He perfectly loved, honored, and obeyed God. Yet he was rejected by the very people who should have known who he is. He was mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This was because people are evil, and they did an evil thing to him. But ultimately, it was God’s plan to have him killed. And it was Jesus’ plan; he laid down his life voluntarily. He did this to take away our sin. Strangely, his death is his victory and exaltation. How is Jesus “high and lifted up”? On the cross!
Not only did Jesus die, but he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again. His resurrection showed that he has power over sin and death, that his sacrifice paid the penalty for sin in full, and that his people, though they will die in this life, will be resurrected to eternal life. He lives to see people come to faith in him, and he intercedes for those people. He prays for them. He is their advocate.
This is the message of Christmas. God sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sin, to make atonement for their sin, to receive the penalty they deserve.
This message is hard to receive. A lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like it because it says that we are bad, that we have done wrong, that we deserve condemnation, and that we can’t fix ourselves. But that’s the truth. Evil isn’t just something that’s “out there.” It’s within us, and we can’t remove it from ourselves. As the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
But Jesus came to take away our sin and our guilt. He came to be destroyed in our place. He also came to give us new hearts, to give us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the strength to live the way that we should, to cause us to love God and obey him.
But notice that in that last song, the servant only takes away the sins of God’s people. He bore the sin of many—not all. He causes many—not all—to be accounted righteous. Not everyone benefits from the work of Jesus.
How do we have become part of God’s people, so that our sins are removed from us and we are put int the right with God? We need to see that our own torches can’t remove our darkness. Our own attempts to feel good will fail, often because they are only superficial. Only Jesus can get to the root of our problems and dig them out.
Recently, I had surgery to repair a hernia. The hernia itself wasn’t as bad as it could be. I couldn’t see a visible bulge. I wasn’t bent over in pain. But it was uncomfortable, and the fact is that once a hernia starts, it doesn’t get better on its own. If left alone, it would get worse. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening, though mine wasn’t.
I recognized that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix. So, I found a doctor who could fix me. I actually saw a couple of doctors who didn’t accurately diagnose the problem. But my surgeon did, he told me he could fix it, and I said I wanted that. So, on December 12 I went to the hospital and had the surgery.
Having surgery is a strange thing. You are yielding control of your body to others. They tell you to take off all your clothes and put them in a bag. They give you a little apron to wear and little socks. You lie on a bed, and they put an IV in you. And you wait. Then, when it’s your time, they wheel you around on that bed and bring you to the operating room.
It’s so strange to be wheeled around in a bed. Usually, when we get in bed, the bed stays where it is. So, it’s odd to lie in a bed that’s moving. And it’s odd to be pushed around, at least when you don’t normally have that done for you. I could have walked to the operating room, but I wasn’t in control. I realized I couldn’t fix myself. I had to give control over to those who could fix me.
Then, they knock you out and the surgeon does his work. I didn’t fully understand the surgery, but I didn’t need to. I only had to trust that the surgeon could fix me. I had to have faith in his understanding and skill, not in my own.
After surgery, things felt worse. I’ve improved and I will continue to heal, but the healing doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes, in order to be made well, we have to feel worse for a while.
And all of this is a lot like salvation. If we understand that we have a problem we can’t fix, and that Jesus alone is the Great Physician who can fix us, we put our trust in him. We yield control of our lives to him. And it might feel like weakness. But what it is is simply facing reality. We are not in control. We can’t fix ourselves.
We don’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be fixed. We don’t need to know everything about how that salvation works. We simply need to put our trust in Jesus. And when he fixes us, it may feel worse at first. Or, it may feel like instant relief, or perhaps a little bit of both. But Jesus promises to be with us as we heal, and he gives us the Spirit to strengthen us.
Jesus’ work isn’t finished. Justice has not been established across the whole Earth. But he makes us right with God if we come to him in faith. If we do that, we will listen to the servant of God’s voice and obey him. And if we do that, we will find our lives changed.
I urge us all to put our trust in Jesus. Only he can make us right with God. Only he can remove the cancer of sin, taking away our shame and guilt. Only he can give us eternal life. Everything else that we try to make us right is just a band aid. Jesus gets to the root of our problem. Let’s turn to him this Christmas.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75. ↑
The food, music, decorations, and gifts that we experience at Christmas are nice, but they often leave us feeling empty. We need more than celebration and feasting to be well. Fortunately, God gave us his servant, Jesus (God’s Son and the anointed King of Israel), to heal us. We can learn more about Jesus by looking at some passages in Isaiah, who prophesied about God’s servant and what he would do. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 22, 2019.
Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.
Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.
It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.
Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?
I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.
Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.
Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.
But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.” You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.” We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?
And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.
But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.” There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer. How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?
And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.
We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.
This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.
If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.
This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.
The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.
Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.
The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.
The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.
He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.
He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.
Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.
Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.
This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.
The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.
If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.
We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?
Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.
These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.
We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.
At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.
Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.
And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.
And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.
You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year. You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.
The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.
But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.
But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.
The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.
- https://ergofabulous.org/luther. ↑
- After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41. ↑
- Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2. ↑
- Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian. ↑
- Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny. ↑
- See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
The prophet of Isaiah foretold the coming of a special child, a son who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This person would make all deliver his people and bring about righteousness, justice, and peace. Jesus is the fulfilment of these promises. Find out how Jesus is the leader we want and need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 15, 2019.
What’s wrong with the world? A lot of people have opinions about what is wrong with the world. In our highly politicized environment, the quick answer might be, “Republicans,” or “Democrats.” Or, perhaps more specifically, people might say, “Donald Trump,” or “Nancy Pelosi,” depending on their political leanings. Bernie Sanders might say “corporate greed” or refer to the “one percent.” Others might not have a specific person or people group in mind, but they may refer to general problems, perhaps environmental ones like climate change or the amount of plastic in our oceans. Six years ago, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
What do you say? Perhaps you’re not worried about the whole world. Perhaps the question you would like to answer is, “What’s wrong with my world?” Your answer might be your health, or your spouse’s health, or a problematic relationship, or your boss, or not enough money, or someone or something else.
There’s a story that in the early twentieth century, The Times of London asked some prominent authors that question, “What’s wrong with the world?” As you can imagine, they received various answers. The shortest they receive was from the witty and insightful Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton. His response was:
G. K. Chesterton
Why would he write that? Just to be funny? No, Chesterton answered that way because he realized that the problem in the world wasn’t one outside of him. It wasn’t a matter of pointing the finger at someone else, or some other group of people. He realized that what was wrong with the world was something inside of him, and inside of everyone else, too.
Today, we’re going to talk about what that something is. Last week, we started a teaching series that will run this month. We’re looking at one book of the Bible, the second longest book (according to chapter numbers), a book from the Old Testament called Isaiah, named after one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Isaiah was given a job by God over twenty-seven hundred years ago: to tell the people of Israel to turn back to God, to tell them about punishment that would come upon them and the world because of sin, and to tell them a message of good news. One day, God’s people will be delivered from all that is wrong with the world. There will healing for broken people and a broken world.
We’ll look at various passages from the book of Isaiah today. We’ll begin with Isaiah 5:1–7:
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry!
This is the story of Israel, but it’s also the story of the world. If you want to know a tip for how to understand the Bible, it’s this: There are three big stories within the Bible. The first one is the story of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating a world out of nothing, and it ends with God restoring that world, creating a new world that is perfect. Within that big story, there’s another story, the story of Israel, which parallels that greater story. God called one old man, Abraham, and he told him that he would bless the whole world through him (Gen. 12:1–3). And that one old man and his old wife, Sarah, miraculously who had a child, who had children, who had children, who became Israel. And they ended up in Egypt, where they grew rapidly in number but became slaves. God rescued them from slavery by sending plagues upon Egypt, the greatest nation of the world at that time. And eventually he brought them into their own land.
In the passage that we just read, God poetically likens that land to a vineyard. He took a fertile ground, cleared out any stones, built a watchtower and a wine vat, and then he planted his vine in it. That’s a way of saying he planted Israel in their own land, a good land. And the language of the vineyard echoes the language of the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God planted the first human beings in a fertile ground.
And what does God expect of his people? He expects them to bear good fruit. He expects them to live in a certain way. He expected them to worship him, to recognize his greatness and reflect that greatness to the world. He expected them to love him, to be thankful to him, and to obey him. He expected them to love because he is love. He expected them to live righteously, to do justice, to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God expected that of the first human beings. He expected that of Israel. And he expects that of us.
But the passage says that God looked for good fruit, for good grapes, and he only found bad fruit, sour, wild grapes. Again, this is a metaphor. The people of Israel were not living the way they should. And just like God evicted Adam and Eve from his garden because they didn’t live according to his terms, God was warning Israel that they would be evicted from their land if they didn’t start living for God. And the reality is that Israel would be removed from their land, at least for a time. And this is our story, too. The reason that we sense problems in our world is that we have been removed from God’s garden, from the paradise that he prepared for us. Humanity has been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The world, as it is, is not our home. That’s why we don’t feel at home. Whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to be back home, to be with God in the world as he intended it to be.
You may wonder, “What kind of bad fruit did Israel produce?” What does it look like to live contrary to God’s expectations? Isaiah gives us a picture of that. Let’s go to the first chapter in the book. Here is Isaiah 1:2–4:
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
The heart of living against God’s design, the heart of what we call sin, is relational. We were made to have a relationship with God. And God says that the problem with Israel is that though they were his children and he raised them, they rebelled against them. Animals know their master, but Israel didn’t know its own maker. In fact, God says that they despised him! Their failure to love God, to acknowledge God as Creator and King, led them to “deal corruptly.”
Yet the Israelites thought that they could ignore God, fail to live for him, and then occasionally go through the religious motions, “worshiping” him. But God says that such worship is no worship at all. Look at Isaiah 1:12–17:
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?|
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Israel tried to do their religious business as usual, bringing their offerings to God, observing their festivals, praying to God. But God says that he hates their festivals and though they pray to him, he will not listen. Their hands are full of blood! Why? It seems that they were doing evil instead of good. They were oppressing people who were vulnerable. Israel had laws in place to care for orphans and widows, and apparently the people were not obeying those laws. There’s a famous verse, Isaiah 29:13, where God says,
. . . this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.
God doesn’t want mere lip service. God wants our hearts. And if we love him, we will obey him.
Now look at verses 21–23:
21 How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,|
but now murderers.
22 Your silver has become dross,|
your best wine mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
That’s some tough talk. Why is Israel called a whore? Because she hasn’t been faithful to God. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. God’s people are supposed to love God and be faithful to him. That means that they shouldn’t worship other gods. When they failed to acknowledge who God truly is, when they failed to make him the most important thing in their lives, the object of their worship, the one who determines how they live, then they were cheating on God. They did not do justice. Their leaders were corrupt, bought and sold, being bribed. Instead of observing the laws about the orphan and they widow, they oppressed those vulnerable people. Later, God, will say that the leaders “devoured the vineyard” (Isa. 3:14) and “crush[ed] my people, by grinding the face of the poor” (Isa. 3:15).
In chapter 5 of Isaiah, after that passage about the vineyard that we read earlier, we’re told that people “join[ed] house to house” and “field to field,” probably by taking properties away from the poor (Isa. 5:8). Israel had laws that required debt forgiveness at various times, and those laws were probably ignored. People rose “early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink” (Isa. 5:11). The Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol, but it does prohibit getting drunk, which causes someone to lose control. That chapter also features these words, in found in Isaiah 5:20–23:
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!
What was true then is true now: we often mistake what is good for evil, and what is evil for good. Our standard of what is good and evil should be God. Our knowledge of what is good and evil is often found in our conscience, but we can’t rely on our own moral compasses, because they are often not working correctly. Our knowledge of good and evil should come from the Bible, but we often ignore it. We think we know better than God.
That kind of ignoring of God, and thinking that we know better than God, is rebellion against him. Isaiah 29:16 says,
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
God has made us. We are the clay, and he is the potter. But our tendency is to get things backwards. We make God in our image, and we reject the true God. We don’t trust that he is wiser than we are.
But God issues this warning to his “clay.” This is Isaiah 45:9–10:
9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”
There’s much more that can be said about our sin again God, and our rebellion against him. But this talk of clay and the potter leads to something else that’s at the heart of sin. Earlier, I said that the heart of sin is a relational problem. We don’t love and honor God as we should. Because of that, we don’t pay attention to him and we don’t obey him—certainly not as we should. And all of that leads to something else that’s at the heart of our sin, our rebellion against God. And that is idolatry.
Idolatry is making something other than God, something that is created, not the Creator, something finite, not infinite, something that had a beginning, not something eternal, and making that thing the center of our lives. An idol is a false god. It’s whatever we love the most. It’s what we trust will make us happy, complete, whole. It’s what we think will give us comfort and security. We don’t have to think of it as an object of worship. We probably don’t think of it as a god. But whatever is at the center of our lives is our god. We were made to worship. We inherently religious. And if we fail to worship the true God, someone or something else will fill that void.
Isaiah has one of the classic passages about idolatry. Turn to Isaiah 44:9–20:
9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
This passage points out the foolishness of idolatry. It imagines something fashioning a piece of wood into some kind of statue or figure of a false god. Half of the food is used for fuel, for warmth and to bake bread. And then they take the other half and make a god to worship, saying “deliver me” to it. This is what idolatry is like.
Now, many people today would conclude that people in the ancient world were just foolish. How stupid can you be to worship something like that? But we’re not really different.
Years ago, I saw a video clip of a comedian on one of the late-night talk shows, and he was saying we have the greatest technology ever, and it’s wasted on the worst generation ever. He said that we’re always complaining about our phones. If you have a smart phone, you have one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever, a little computer, camera, and phone that can do what previous generations never thought possible. And what’s it made out of? Plastic, glass, some bits of metal. When the phone works, you can be become glued to it. We put our faith in technology to make our lives better, to deliver us. But what if it stops working? Then it’s just a bit of trash. The thing we’ll pay hundreds of dollars for now will be useless later.
That’s sort of what Isaiah is getting at here. It’s foolish to make something that will later be junk the center of your life, because the reality is it’s not a smart phone. It’s dumb. It has no personality, no will. It didn’t design and make itself. It didn’t create the world and it can’t remake it. It can’t save you. It can’t deliver you from your greatest problem, which is, in the words of Isaiah, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
We make idols because we can control them. We are their potter, and they are our clay. We don’t want to come under God’s authority. We want to be gods. Idols make demands on us, but we somehow think those demands are not as hard as God’s. Instead of realizing that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30), we think there’s an easier way, a better way. But it’s not better. God allows us to go after those idols, but they don’t lead to salvation. They lead to death.
All of that is bad news. Yes, there is a problem in the world, and that problem isn’t just outside of us, it’s in us. We’re part of the problem. So, how do we fix it?
Part of the problem is that we can’t fix the problem. Isaiah 64:5–6 says,
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
We can’t save ourselves. We are unclean, tainted by the power of sin, by the folly of idolatry. Even our best acts, the ones we consider righteous, are polluted by sin. We do good things often for selfish reasons, not to honor God. So, if we can’t fix the problem, who can?
The good news is that God can, and, if we turn to God, he will. Earlier, we read some verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. I intentionally left out a few. Here is what Isaiah 1:18–20 says:
18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God promised Israel that he would make them clean. He would make them “white as snow,” “like wool.” He would remove their sins. But they had to be willing. They had to repent. This salvation is offered freely. It’s a gift that must be received in faith.
Isaiah 55:1–7 says,
1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Isaiah says, “Come and eat, come and drink. You don’t need money! Do this and live. Seek God while he can he found. If you do this, forsaking your wicked ways, God will have compassion on you. He will forgive your sins.”
How does God cleanse unclean people from their sin? Why does he forgive them? How is it that this offer is free, without price?
The answer is Jesus. I’ll say much more about him over the next two weeks. We’ll hear that he is the promised child who would be born, the Son who is also God (Isa. 9:6–7). As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, he became a human being. This is the miracle of Christmas: God became man (without ceasing to be God). The third story of the Bible, the one that fulfills those other stories, is about Jesus. Jesus became a man so that he could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He does what we should do but don’t. He always loved, honored, and worshiped God the Father. He had no idols. He wasn’t polluted by sin. Yet though he was perfect, he was treated like a criminal, like the worst of rebels. He died on a cross, an instrument of shame, torture, and death. This wasn’t an accident. It was God’s plan to punish sin. Jesus takes the punishment that we all deserve. He takes the death penalty for sin away from all who seek him, who turn to him in faith, who are willing to put away their idols and their wicked ways and follow him. This is all a gift. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first or earn this from God. We simply have to receive it in faith, trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything needed to put us back into a right relationship with God.
I’ll say more about him over the next two weeks. And I’ll say more about God’s plans to restore the world at the end of the month. But I do want to say now that Isaiah foresaw a day when people would cast away their idols. After Isaiah called Israel “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9), he said,
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him (Isa. 30:18).
And he says to those who come to God, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).
Isaiah also told of a day when the world would become a garden again, when the “wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15). He predicted that a new creation would come, where God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). He predicted that God’s people would go back home, to be with God in a perfect world.
The only way back to God and that world is Jesus. I urge us all to trust in him, to know more about him, to know more about the Bible, which is his word. You can do that by reading all of Isaiah for yourself. This sermon and the other sermons in this series will be on our website, at wbcommunity.org/isaiah. You can find links to some great videos about the book, made by The Bible Project. All of us can know about the one true God. The clay can truly know its potter. The question is whether or not we are willing. As far as it is within your power, seek God while he can be found.
- Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Repubblica, October 1, 2013, https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce. ↑
- Marva J. Dawn, “Not What, but Who Is the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.
During times of turmoil and uncertainty, we need to recover a “big view” of God. The prophet Isaiah tells us who God is and why he created us. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on December 1, 2019.
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.
- 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.