He Was Lost, and Is Found

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

Throughout the history of religion, there have been two topics that have been disputed: who God is and how we should respond to him. In fact, if you study different religions, you will see that while religions teach similar things about ethics, they say very different things about what God is like and how we can have a right relationship with him. And throughout the history of Christianity, most heresies, or wrong teachings, have involved who God is and how we can be reconciled to him.

Today, we’re going to look at a story that gives us a glimpse of God’s character and how we should respond to him rightly. This story will also give us a picture of two wrong and very common ways to respond to God.

One of the things I do here is talk a lot about the gospel of Jesus Christ. I teach the message of Christianity so that we understand it and can tell it to others. I encourage us all to share this news with others. And I encourage us all to live in light of the gospel. So, what I’m preaching here today isn’t going to be very new to you, unless you’re very new to church and to the Bible. But what matters most is not whether I teach something new, but whether I teach something that is true. And the fact is that whether you’re someone who is not yet a Christian, or you’re the most seasoned saint, we all need to hear the gospel, time and again, to learn it, remember it, and press it deeply into our minds and down into our hearts so that it affects the way we live. As Tim Keller has written, “The gospel is . . . not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life.”[1] The gospel isn’t something we learn once and then leave behind for more important things. The gospel is the main event, not the undercard. It’s the headliner, not the opening act.

To experience the gospel once again, today we’re going to look at Luke 15. As we do that, we’re going to see a few important things. We’re going to see that there are two wrong ways to respond to God. We’re going to see that there is a right way to respond to God. We’ll see the heart of God. And we’ll see Jesus, his mission, and our mission.

Let’s begin by reading the first two verses of Luke 15:

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”[2]

It’s important to see that Jesus is speaking to two groups of people here. The first group are the tax collectors and “sinners.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were Jews who collected taxes for the Roman Empire. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. Tax collectors also had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should (Luke 3:13). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.” In the Pharisees’ view, “sinners” were people who didn’t keep their standards of purity—standards added to God’s commandments. “Sinners” could also refer to people who rather obviously broke God’s commandments.

But these people came to hear Jesus. Jesus had a message that attracted people who had made a shipwreck of their lives. He gave them hope, and they wanted to hear more.

The other group of people Jesus is talking to are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, or the scribes. They represent the religious leaders of Judaism. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with these religious leaders. Jesus says they’re greedy hypocrites who care only about appearing religious while in reality their hearts are corrupt (Luke 11:37–52). They try to justify themselves before God by appealing to all their religious works (Luke 18:9–14). They adhere to the letter of the law while missing the heart of God’s commandments, which is simply to love God and to love other people.

We’re told that the Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling. That’s a loaded word in the Bible. It’s used of the Israelites when they complained about Moses after they were delivered out of slavery in Egypt.[3] So, Luke is showing that these people are aligned with those faithless, disobedient Israelites. They complained that Jesus hung out with “sinners” (Luke 5:30–32), and they were out to get him (Luke 11:53–54).

All of this is very important to understanding what Jesus teaches in this chapter. Jesus then tells this audience a parable. Notice that chapter 15 is one parable in three parts. I’m going to spend most of my time on the third part, but let’s first read verses 3–10:

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I think the point of these stories is clear: “sinners” are worth seeking. In both stories, something precious is lost, someone goes searching for what was lost, and when the lost is found, there is great rejoicing. Jesus says that’s the way it is when sinners, people who were separated from God, are found by God, when they turn away from their sin and turn back to God.

It seems like Jesus is telling the religious leaders that they should be searching for the lost, not grumbling when they come to God.

Then Jesus tells what is often called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The parable might better be called, “The Parable of a Father and His Two Sons,” though that isn’t as catchy. But this parable is as much about the older son as it is the younger son. First, we’ll see what happens with the younger son. Let’s look at verses 11–16:

11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

The younger son approaches his father and asks for his inheritance now. That’s shocking. What would you be doing if you asked your parents for your inheritance now? You’d be saying that you wished they were dead so you could take their money. He doesn’t want his father; he wants his father’s stuff. Amazingly, the father obliges. In Jewish law, the eldest son inherited a “double portion,” twice as much as the other sons. In this case, the younger son would have inherited one-third of all the father’s possessions.[4] The father gives this to the son, who then leaves for “a far country.” There, the son engages in “reckless living.” He lives it up and he squanders everything that his father has given him.

In this parable, the father obviously represents the Father, God. And the attitude this younger son has is one wrong response to God. We might call this licentiousness or law-breaking. If you want to know the story of the Bible and the story of humanity in a nutshell, you can find it in this story. God is a perfect Father who created the world and all that is in it. He made us in his image, to reflect his glory and to serve him, and he made us after his likeness, which he means he made us to be his children, to love him and obey him the way children should love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, people have said to God, “We don’t want a relationship with you. We want your stuff. Go away. We’ll call you if we need anything else.” The first humans didn’t trust that God was good, they wanted something other than what God had given them, and they were banished to a far country where they found famine and death. And that’s our story, too. We live in his world, we enjoy his blessings, but we don’t really want him. The heart of sin isn’t just breaking God’s commandments. The heart of sin is a rupture in our relationship with God. So, we, too, find ourselves in a distant country. We’re exiles. That’s why we often don’t feel at home in this world.

Now, back to the parable: When the son has spent everything, a famine occurs. He has no one to turn to. There’s no family around. So, he becomes a hired hand, working for a Gentile, feeding pigs. Things were so bad for him, he wished he could eat the pigs’ food. Pigs were unclean animals (Lev. 11:7; Deut. 14:8). He was unclean, lower than the pigs. This would indicate to a Jewish audience that this son could go no lower. He had reached bottom.

But then comes a change. We see this beginning in verse 17:

17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

The son comes to his senses! Before, he wasn’t thinking rightly. He decided he could have a better life apart from his family. But once he hit bottom, he woke up to the truth. So, he prepares a little speech. He will tell his father that he sinned “against heaven”—this is another way of saying he sinned against God. And he sinned against his father. He realizes that because of this, he is not worthy to be called a son. He asks merely to be a hired hand.

This is the right response to God. We must realize that because of our sin, we are not worthy to be called God’s children. We must confess our sin and turn back to God, appealing only to his grace. This is what repentance looks like: coming to our senses. We had once exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and our thinking was futile (Rom. 1:18–25). But when we come to see who God is and who we are, we come to our senses and turn back to God.

When we turn to God, he welcomes us back home. In this story, we already saw that the father let the son go his way. Now we see him welcome his son back home. This represents the loving character of God. I’ll read verses 20–24:

20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

The prodigal son returns home, and as he approaches, his father sees him. The father is filled with compassion and he can’t wait to be with his son, so he runs. He doesn’t care about how he looks or what anyone might think about him. The father embraces the son; he doesn’t wait for an apology or a confession. But the son does confess, repeating much of the speech he recited earlier.

Yet the father doesn’t say, “You’re right: you’ve sinned!” There is no penalty. There is only acceptance. The father asks his servants to put his best robe, a ring, and sandals on the son. These things illustrate that the son is received back into the family. His relationship with his father is restored. And this is celebrated. The father calls for a feast to be prepared. This would have been a very rare occasion, because a fattened calf was expensive. The whole village was probably invited to this feast. Why does the father celebrate? “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

When sinners turn from their sin and put their faith in Jesus, they become spiritually alive. We once were dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1), but now have been made alive with Christ (Eph. 2:5). We once were lost, but now we’re found. This is a great reason to celebrate.

The idea of a feast is fitting, because eternity with God is sometimes described as a feast. One day, Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and all who have put their trust in Jesus will live with God forever in a new world, a world in which all evil is removed. The idea of a feast is far more than just eating a lot of good food. It’s being welcomed into God’s home, joining him at his table. It’s communing with God, sharing in his abundance. In fact, the Bible even says that when this great feast is served, it will never end. It won’t end because when the feast is served, death itself will be removed (Isa. 25:6–9).

Now, if we stopped here, it would be a nice story, but we would miss one of the major points of this parable. So, we must see how the elder son reacts. The elder brother shows us another false response to God. One way to reject God is to be like the younger brother, to break all the rules, to seek meaning in life through entertainment and pleasure, to squander everything in “reckless living.” But there’s another way to reject God, and this may come a little closer to home. Let’s look at verses 25–32:

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

When the older son hears that his brother his home, he doesn’t come running. Instead, he gets angry and he refuses to join the feast. Why is the brother angry? It’s possible that he thought he might lose part of his inheritance. Before, he was to receive two-thirds of his father’s estate. But his younger brother is now restored. That suggests that the younger son might get a third of the current estate. If that’s true, then the older brother just lost a third of his inheritance.

But perhaps the brother is simply jealous of his brother. Look at how he talks to his father. He says, “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. But you’ve never celebrated that. You’ve never even given me a little goat.” It looks like he resents the attention his brother is getting. He calls his brother “this son of your yours,” and he says his brother wasted money on prostitutes. How did he know that? Was he speculating, or did he hear it through the grapevine? At any rate, he’s angry and resentful.

Perhaps the older brother thinks his father is playing favorites. At any rate, this doesn’t appear fair to him. Sometimes, people don’t think the gospel is fair, but they don’t understand that it would be fair for God to condemn all of us for our sin. But he doesn’t. That’s mercy. Sometimes, people don’t understand the point of grace: no one deserves salvation. That’s why it’s grace—it’s a gift.

Now, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the younger brother represents the tax collectors and the sinners, and the older brother represents the Pharisees and the scribes. The first group of people had sinned, but they were coming to Jesus. They were coming home. The second group was grumbling, like the older brother. You see, there is a very religious way to reject God. We might call this legalism. You can try to earn God’s favor. You can try to obey all the rules. You may even think God owes you something for all your work. But if you are merely trying to earn something from God, you don’t really want God. You don’t really love him. But God doesn’t just want our obedience. He wants our hearts. He wants a relationship with us. This older brother looks like he didn’t care about his relationship with his father. By not coming to the feast, he was dishonoring his father. He was so consumed with working to earn his inheritance that he rejects his father and his brother.

If we fail to see that salvation is by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, we will become like the older brother. If we believe we are Christians because we’re good people, because we’re moral, we may be in greater danger than the “sinners” around us. Christianity is not moralism. Christianity doesn’t say, “If you’re good enough, you can get to God.” That’s what a lot of other religions say. Christianity say something more shocking. It says “You’ll never be good enough to earn God’s favor. Your best deeds are polluted by selfish motives and your sin (Isa. 64:6). In fact, you’re so bad that God had to become man and die in your place.” But that’s the great thing: Jesus did that for us. The Father loves us so much he would send his Son, and the Son loves us so much that he would leave his home and go to a distant country to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10).

That’s brings me to Jesus. Of course, Jesus is telling this story. But the story hints at what Jesus himself does. You see, the first two parts of this story were about someone finding something precious. A shepherd goes to find a lost sheep. A woman searches for a lost coin. You would expect that in the third story, someone goes to find something. But that doesn’t happen.

If you think more about it, it seems that the older brother should have been the one to go find the younger brother. The father might have been too old, or too busy managing his property, to go and seek his youngest son. But the older brother knew that his brother was living a life of sin, and he didn’t seem concerned. Again, he was too busy trying to earn something from his father to leave and find his brother.

But perhaps the older brother of this story isn’t the true older brother. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t tell us about someone going to find the younger brother, because he wants us to see that he is the one who has come to find his younger brothers. Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes his own mission: “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

There’s another way to see that this story is about Jesus. The story doesn’t tell us the basis for salvation. But perhaps it hints at it. I said earlier that Jewish law states that the eldest brother gets a double share of the inheritance. That law is found in Deuteronomy 21:15–17. But I want us to look at what comes right after that passage. Deuteronomy 21:18–21 says a rebellious son deserves death:

18 “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, 19 then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, 20 and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

The younger son in Jesus’ story deserved to die, according to this law. And the older son, with his own rebellious heart and his refusal to come to the feast, deserved death, too. We’re all like those sons, stubborn and rebellious children who deserve the death penalty for our sin. But if you are a Christian, you have received eternal life. How is that possible? Look at the next two verses (Deut. 21:22–23):

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

Now, if you don’t see Jesus there, don’t worry. It’s not immediately obvious, by any means. But the apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:13, quotes part of that passage to show how we are reconciled to God. He writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” When Jesus died on the “tree”—the cross—he died so we don’t have to receive God’s wrath. He paid for all our sins on the cross. He sought us and bought us with his precious blood. If we have faith in Jesus, he is our true elder brother.

You’ll notice that the parable ends without a response from the older brother. Jesus is pleading with the Pharisees and scribes to come to the feast, to surrender their pride and rely only on God’s grace.

And I’ll end by pleading with you. I don’t know if we have any younger brothers here today, because I don’t know you all personally, and I can’t see your hearts. If you’re seeking meaning in life by breaking all the rules, if you’re trying to be your own god, if you think you’re the ultimate authority in your life, I promise you that path will only lead to destruction. Running away from God may feel fun for a while, but this reckless living will leave you empty, and you’ll find yourself in the muck and mire, far from home, without comfort and hope. I urge you to come to your sense, to come home to God, to turn to Jesus.

I think it’s far more likely that there are older brothers here. If you’re an older brother, you may look down at other people. You may be bothered if a messy “sinner” comes to church on Sunday. You might think God owes you something for all your years of service. You may resent it when things don’t go your way. We should rejoice when sinful people show up at the church. My hope is that you’ll see more of those people here in the future.

If you’re neither a younger brother nor an older brother, but if you’re a true child of God, then consider how you can be like Jesus. He came to seek and save the lost. What are you doing—what are we doing—to seek and save the lost around us? Jesus’ brother, James, writes this at the end of his letter: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20; see also Gal. 6:1). We should go after people who have wandered from the truth. We should go after people who have never known the truth. Start with prayer. Ask God to bring people who need Jesus into your life. Think about the people around you who aren’t yet Christians and pray for their souls. Pray for opportunities to talk to them about Jesus. And, when the opportunity is right, plead lovingly with those around you to consider Jesus.

My hope is that this church would be one that sees younger brothers coming to their senses, but this can only happen if we aren’t older brothers. Start praying that people around you would come to your senses. Seek them out, love them, tell them the good news about Jesus, and invite them to the feast.

Notes

  1. Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008), 119.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Exod. 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Num. 14:2; 16:41.
  4. Deut. 21:15–17.

 

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

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

Widows (1 Timothy 5:9-16)

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

What Is Proper for Women (1 Timothy 2:8-15)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 20, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I think most people would agree that there is problem with men and women in our culture. That is particularly true in light of the many different accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that have come to light within recent months and years. How men and women relate to each other in this country is problematic, to say the least.

Though most people would agree with that, we don’t seem to agree on the solution to this problem. Some people think the way forward is to have more female leaders. Many people think every other president should be a woman, that half of Congress should be female, and that there should be more female governors, mayors, and judges. The same people think that there should be far more female CEOs, board members, principals, professors, military officers, and so on. They might think that for every male role in a movie or television show, there should be a female role. I suspect that if the people who hold these opinions thought about religion, they would think there should be a female Pope and priests, too.

In other words, some people think that the way forward is to have equal roles for men and women. Not only are they equal in value, worth, respect, and dignity, but they also should be able to perform all the same jobs. The only difference is biological. And those biological differences are generally only concerned with reproductive organs and size and strength.

But what if this isn’t the way forward? What if the way forward is to go backward? And I don’t mean that we should go back to the nineteenth century, when women couldn’t vote. I don’t mean we should go back to, say, a thousand or two or three thousand years ago, when women were often treated like property. What if the way forward is to look back to a time when the world was uncorrupted by the forces of evil? What if the way forward is to look back to the way God designed the world to function, before sin invaded the creation and distorted everything?

I realize that many people think such an idea would be foolish. Many people would believe such a move to be regress, not progress. I understand that. The reality is that Christianity has always been countercultural. Christianity is more than just a way to be forgiven by God. Christianity is a way of looking at all of reality. It’s a worldview, a story that gives shape to our lives, a map that shows us where to go, a set of lenses that helps us to see the world as it really is. And the Christian worldview will always be at odds with elements of the prevailing culture’s worldview. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of men and women.

We’ll see that today as we continue to look at a book in the Bible called 1 Timothy. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy, who was in a city in the Roman Empire called Ephesus.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Paul encouraged Timothy to stop people who taught false doctrine. Now, he tells Timothy that men and women have different roles to play in the church.

What we see in this passage will challenge some of us. At first, some of us might think this couldn’t possibly be right. That will likely be true if you’re not a Christian. But I would ask that you keep an open mind. I also ask you to think about this: There has never been a country that has had as much wealth as America has right now. There has never been a people with as many choices as Americans have now. Despite all of this, we are, on the whole, unhappy. The number of suicides, drug overdose deaths, various addictions, and drug prescriptions for depression and anxiety speak to that fact. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re doing things. That’s something to consider as we explore today’s passage.

Without further ado, let’s turn to 1 Timothy 2:8–15:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.[1]

There are four points to this passage. The first two concern appropriate behavior for men and women, respectively. The third point states what women should not do. And the fourth point provides the reason.

The first thing that Paul says is “I desire.” You might think he is simply expressing his own opinions or wishes, and that these are not necessarily commands from God. But at the very beginning of the letter, Paul describes himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). Paul was commissioned by God—commanded by God—to be the official messenger of Jesus. God appointed him to this role (1 Tim. 2:7). In 2 Timothy, Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16)—it’s ultimately written by God through human beings, which is what the apostle Peter says, too (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter also refers to Paul’s letters and then speaks of “other Scriptures,” which means that Paul’s letters are Scripture, too (2 Pet. 3:15–16). So, this isn’t just a letter from Paul. It’s also God’s word. The Holy Spirit wrote these words through Paul. The point is that these aren’t just Paul’s opinions.

Paul says that he desires “that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” It seems the men in the church in Ephesus might have had trouble getting along. Paul says that not only those men, but men in “every place” should pray. This shows that Paul’s words in this letter are not just directed to the church in Ephesus, but to all Christians. And it’s clear that Paul’s instructions here have to do with public worship meetings. Instead of lifting hands to fight among themselves, they should lift “holy hands,” hands that are pure, hands that reach out to God, as it were. Perhaps they should be praying for all people, as Paul says at the beginning of chapter 2.

Then, Paul moves on to discuss what is appropriate for women: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” It’s possible that in Ephesus, some women were showing off their wealth by wearing a lot of jewelry and “costly attire.” Paul doesn’t want anyone in the church to draw attention away from God and to themselves. When we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, it’s not a fashion show. Our attention should be directed toward God. Anything that distracts from that focus is a hindrance. This is not a time to show off expensive clothing or jewelry.

There may be another reason why Paul doesn’t women to dress in a showy way. Women might have dressed that way to get attention from men. Even if they weren’t intending to attract or seduce men, if they dressed in an immodest way, then the men of the church might have been distracted.

As a man, I can say this: I don’t know any man who doesn’t struggle with lust. Perhaps there are some men who don’t have such problems. But every man I know who was talked on the subject has some struggles in this area. If attractive women are wearing revealing clothing, that can not only be a distraction, but it doesn’t help men who struggle with that issue. Now, it’s a man’s fault if he can’t control his thoughts and desires. But a sister in Christ should want to help her brother out, and not be a stumbling block to him. And if a woman is dressing in a showy, revealing way, there has to be some question as to why she is doing that. Is she at a worship service to worship God, or to attract attention to herself?

I don’t see this being a problem at this church, so I won’t linger too long here. The point is that women shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Instead, they should focus on doing good works, the source of real beauty. That doesn’t necessarily mean women can’t wear any jewelry or makeup, or that they can’t wear something fashionable. But the point is that the focus should be on God and on living for him.

Of course, the same could be said of men. I don’t know that men tend to be so distracting in their looks. But I’m a man, not a woman, so I can’t speak for how women might react to a very attractive man wearing something that was form-fitting or revealing. But men don’t tend to do that, and that was probably true in Paul’s day, so it doesn’t seem to be much of a worry.

Let’s move on to verses 11 and 12, for this is where things get quite controversial. Paul says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is where Paul’s words grate against so many today. What does Paul mean? There seem to be two general understandings of what Paul writes here. One is to take Paul’s words at face value. Women shouldn’t teach in a church meeting or exercise authority over men in a church. Instead, they should be submissive and generally quiet. The other is to claim that Paul was addressing a particular cultural issue in his time. The claim is that in Ephesus, all women were uneducated and therefore not fit to teach. Since Paul was concerned about false teaching, and since the women there were uneducated, Paul tells them to learn and not teach or lead. But maybe if the cultural conditions were different, Paul wouldn’t place such restrictions on women.

I don’t have enough time to refute that second position thoroughly. All I can say is that Paul nowhere hints at a claim that all women in Ephesus were uneducated and that’s why they shouldn’t teach or lead men. Paul could have used words to communicate such an idea. He could have framed his argument in that way. But he doesn’t. In fact, since the false teachers were likely male, telling women not to teach wouldn’t stop the false teaching. But it probably was the case that some women decided they, too, could be teachers. Perhaps they thought that since Jesus had come, all gender distinctions were no longer valid.

I do think that Paul means that women should not lead men in a church. In other words, they shouldn’t be pastors, elders, or overseers. The Bible uses three different terms—shepherds (from which we get “pastors”), elders, and overseers—to refer to the leading and teaching office of the church. What Paul says means that women are not qualified for that office. But that doesn’t mean women can’t teach at all. In Titus, Paul says that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2:3–5). And when Paul says that women should learn quietly, he can’t mean absolute silence, for at least two reasons. First, Paul uses the same word in verse 2 to speak of all Christians leading a quiet life. He hardly means all Christians should be absolutely silent. Second, in another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women can pray and prophesy in church (11:5). But I do think Paul means women should submit to male leaders and teachers—pastors—and shouldn’t be pastors themselves.

Again, this is where people start to claim that the Bible presents a regressive, backwards “patriarchal” view of men and women. How can we respond to this type of claim?

Well, let me say two things before we continue to look at verses in the Bible. One, I find that labels are often not helpful when dealing with controversial subjects. People who tend to oppose this passage will often bring up the word “patriarchy,” as if that’s some kind of argument in and of itself. Some people now talk about “toxic masculinity,” which is kind of an unclear concept. I’m sure there are false views of masculinity that are toxic. The Bible does not teach that men should be abusive or treat women like slaves or playthings. But I think a lack of biblical manhood is also toxic. When a man refuses to accept the role that God designed for him, that could be just as toxic as the domineering, abusive man. Likewise, I don’t think it’s helpful to rail against “feminist” or “leftists.” Good arguments don’t call names, mock people, or just make quick, baseless assertions. Christians, we need to do better in all of our conversations than resorting to these cheap, easy moves. We need to be more thoughtful and careful.

So, we need to dig deeper and think. That’s one issue.

The second issue is that how we read, interpret, and react to the Bible is going to be shaped by our worldview. No one comes to the Bible objectively. We all have various beliefs, heart inclinations, philosophical commitments, and presuppositions. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of those things. We often assume that we’re in the right, and we look at the Bible to see if it matches what we already assume to be true. Before we assume our generation has things right, we should examine our own beliefs. By what standard have we judged them? Why do we assume that we’re right and others in the past have been wrong?

Some people assume that Paul was culturally conditioned. In other words, he was just a man of his times and his views reflected his own culture. All the while, these same people never assume that they are culturally conditioned, and that they are just men and women of their own times, with views that reflect nothing more than the passing fancies of their own culture.

If the basic story of the Bible is true—that a holy, perfect, good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God created us to function in a certain way, and that we have rebelled against him and his design for our lives—we should assume that there will be times when the Bible rubs us the wrong way. That’s because God will be using his written word to challenge our assumptions and correct our views. That has always happened. The Bible has always been countercultural. The exact ways it challenges various cultures will change throughout time, but there was never a time when everyone in one country said, “Yup, everything in that book is exactly what I’ve always believed.”

Now, back to this passage: to understand what Paul is saying, and why it makes sense, we have to see how he grounds his argument and how that shows us some important points regarding the Christian worldview.

This is the reason why women should not teach and exercise authority over men in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” What Paul is doing is reminding us of the beginning of the Bible.

So, let’s think about the beginning of the story of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The crown of God’s creation was humanity. In Genesis 1:26–28, we read this:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27  So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

It’s very important to see that God made both man and woman in his image. That means that both have the same value and worth. They were both tasked with representing who God is, reflecting his glory and attributes. And man and woman were made to rule over the rest of creation by coming under the authority of God and his word.

Genesis 2 gives us a different perspective of how God made human beings. It’s not a contradictory account, it’s just different. The Hebrew way of thinking often examined one truth from different angles. In Genesis 2, we see that God makes the man first. God also gives the man a task, to “work and keep” the garden of Eden, as well as a commandment not to eat one type of fruit. All of this is loaded with meaning that I don’t have time to explain this morning. Suffice it to say, the importance of all of this goes far beyond gardening and eating.

After this, God makes a woman to be with the man. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for[2] him” (Gen. 2:18). The ESV has a footnote that says, “corresponding to.” The idea is that God wouldn’t make a clone of the man, someone identical to him. No, God would make a woman who would correspond to and complement the man. She would be different in some important ways, but they would both bear God’s image.

It’s true that different faithful, Bible-believing Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis differently. There are different views about how old the universe is, or how literal and how figurative various things are in the text. But I think all faithful Christians must believe that God created two human beings, Adam and Eve, intentionally and for a particular purpose. He made them for each other, different from one another yet corresponding to one another and, obviously, both human and both in God’s image. It’s also important to see that the commands were given by God to the man, and that this happened before sin came into the world. This implies that the man was the head, or leader, of the woman even before sin entered into the world.

This picture of peace and harmony between God and humans, and between the first two human beings, is marred in Genesis 3. There, a serpent, an embodiment of Satan, tempts Eve by getting her to question God’s word and his goodness. She disobeys God’s commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit, and Adam goes along with her. As a consequence, all of creation is under a curse, a partial punishment that God imposed against his rebellious creatures.

Though Eve was the first to sin, Adam is the one who is held accountable by God. We’re told that God specifically addressed the man and questioned him about what happened. This is because Adam was the leader, the head. Theologically, we know from the whole of the Bible that Adam was the covenant head. He represented all of humanity. This is a difficult concept for people who aren’t familiar with the Bible to grasp, but the idea is that we are all represented by someone, just as we’re all represented in Congress by politicians, whether we voted for that person or not. Even before the fall, Adam is the leader.

Part of God’s curse is that men and women would struggle against each other. God told Eve,

Your desire shall be contrary to[3]your husband,
but he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16).

If we compare that language to what God says to Cain in the next chapter of Genesis (see Gen. 4:7), we see that this means that the woman would want to dominate or master her husband, and that he would respond with a harsh rule, not loving leadership. God was saying that this would happen to all women and men in the future.

Let’s now get back to Paul’s argument. He says that Adam was formed first, then Eve. I believe the implication is that God made Adam first because God intended to have man be the head of the family. This is what Paul says in a letter to Christians in this same city of Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:22–24, Paul writes,

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Paul says clearly that the husband is the head of the wife, and that the wife should submit to the husband.

But let’s not forget what Paul says next. In verse 25, he says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That’s a high calling. Men are supposed to love their wives in a leading but sacrificial way. You can see how there is no hint of abuse or domineering here.

Paul also says that Eve was deceived first and sinned. Does Paul mean that women are more easily deceived or more easily given to sinning? Does Paul mean that if the serpent talked to Adam instead of Eve, sin wouldn’t have entered into the world?

I don’t think Paul means those things. But the fact is that the serpent did talk to Eve, not Adam. Why would that happen? Why would Satan work through a serpent, anyway? There’s some mystery here, but it seems that Satan quite intentionally worked against God’s created order. Genesis 1 says that human beings were to have dominion over all animals, including things that creep on the earth. Satan spoke through a creepy-crawly animal, getting a human being to trust him instead of God. Already, he was subverting the created order. And since God made the man first and gave him the commandments and held him accountable for the rebellion, it’s clear that God made the man to be a leader over the woman. Satan must have known that, but he continued to subvert the created order by tempting the woman. And the woman then tempted the man. We should also see that in Genesis 3, Adam was “with her” (v. 6). He clearly didn’t do a good job of leading or protecting his wife, so he is just as much to blame.

Now, that all seems to be clear. But perhaps that doesn’t answer why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors. Why shouldn’t they be?

It’s hard to answer that question in a way that will satisfy critics. We must say, though, that God made men to be leaders and women to serve alongside, but not over, men. And I think we can make some generalizations about men and women. There will likely be exceptions to these generalizations, but I think they are for the most part true. Women tend to be more nurturing. It’s no surprise that most nurses, school teachers, and other children’s workers have been women. I think women tend to be more patient with children, and I think this is by design.

From what I have seen in churches, men are more interested in doctrinal formulations, in systematic theology, and are not as afraid to make tough decisions. They are less likely to be driven by emotions.

Again, I’m sure there are exceptions, but God has created men and women differently. Listen to the words of a female physician, a cardiologist named Paula Johnson: “Every cell has a sex—and what that means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular level. It means that we’re different across all of our organs, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints.”[4] Men and women are different by design, and God made men to be leaders, to be heads. This does not mean men are inherently better or more intelligent. It just means men and women are different, fitted for different roles. That’s why God did not intend women to be pastors. For example, how could a husband be the head of his wife if his wife were his pastor?

Before I make a few more general comments on this whole topic, we do have one more verse to explore, and it’s a hard one to understand. In verse 15, Paul writes, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” There are three different ways to take this. Some people think the “she” in the first part of the verse refers to Eve. Salvation came to the world through her bearing children, because the distant offspring of Eve, Jesus, is the Savior (Gen. 3:15). It’s certainly true that even though Eve sinned, she became “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20)—that’s what her name means. God used a sinful woman to bear children, who had children, who had children . . . which eventually led to the birth of Jesus. So, there is great value in bearing children, and only women can have children. Mothers should be honored greatly. Having children is no less of a task than pastoring a church. Obviously, we wouldn’t be here without mothers.

That being said, I don’t think this is what Paul means, because the second half of the verse, “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” doesn’t fit this interpretation.

Some people think that this verse doesn’t speak of spiritual salvation, but of physical deliverance through the process of having a child. In the Bible, the word “saved” sometimes refers just to a temporal, physical deliverance (as in Acts 27:20, 31). In the ancient world, mothers often died in childbirth. Some people think that if women gladly except their God-given roles and live godly, faithful lives, they wouldn’t die in the process of giving birth. That’s a possible reading, but we don’t have any evidence that faithful Christian women didn’t die giving birth, while only those unfaithful, ungodly women perished.

A third reading, and probably the right one, is that women will be saved in an ultimate, spiritual sense, if they accept their God-given role, which is represented here by motherhood, and if they continue in faith and godly living. Now, this doesn’t mean that every woman is going to give birth. Being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:7–8). But only women can get pregnant and give birth, and Paul refers to this as one unique aspect of womanhood. And this also doesn’t mean that salvation is earned. Salvation is a gift from God. But we have to think about it this way: If God has saved a person from sin and ultimate condemnation, he has also given that person the Holy Spirit to change that person, to transform that person. A changed heart responds to Jesus in faith, trusting him not only for salvation, but also trusting his words, his authority, and his design for our lives. The proof that a person has been changed is faith, godly living, and an acceptance of God’s design. This is true of both men and women.

The truth is that we all have limitations and limited roles to play. We all must submit to authorities. The word “submit” is not a four-letter word; it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in America we tend to be allergic to authorities and see submission as a curse instead of a gift. Honestly, I think this is a source of unhappiness. If we learned to embrace God’s design instead of fighting against it, we would be more content.

God has designed authority and submission on many levels. Children must submit to parents (Eph. 6:1–3). Employees must submit to employers (Eph. 6:5–8). Yes, wives are told they should submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22). In the church, people should submit to pastors (Heb. 13:17). All of us should submit to civic leaders, to governing politicians (Rom. 13:1–7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). And everyone should ultimately submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, who even submitted himself to his Father.[5] The fact that Jesus submitted to his Father doesn’t mean he is less in value. Jesus is God the Son, no less divine than God the Father. But even the God-man knows what it’s like to submit.

And Jesus shows what it’s like for a man to lead in love. He was and is authoritative. He wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths or perform hard tasks. But he laid down his life for his people, both men and women. He died for them. A real man doesn’t rule with an iron fist. A real man leads, but he also sacrifices. The fact that Jesus did both shows that we can trust his him and submit to him as our King and Savior. And if we submit to Jesus, we’ll trust what he says about submitting to merely human authorities.

This sermon has already been long enough, and though I would love to save more to defend what the Bible says, all I can say now is something that Jesus said: “wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35). If we all trusted God’s words regarding men and women, I believe we would see a more just, well-ordered world. But it will take some time to see the results of what we do, just like it takes time to see what kind of adults children will become. I firmly believe that the fruit of our culture will be rotten. Literally, the children of a culture that rebels against God will be worse off. If we trust what God has spoken and lived accordingly, things would be better.

Here’s a closing word to men and to women. Men, embrace your role as leaders, but lead lovingly. Lead in prayer. Don’t dominate women, but don’t also abdicate your role as leaders. I think the reason why women have become leaders is often because men refused to lead or were simply lousy leaders. All of us will lead somewhere in life. If you’re married, love your wives as Jesus loved the church. If you’re a leader in the church, lead according to God’s word and the example of Jesus. If you’re a leader at work, do the same.

Women, you are in no way inferior to men. You are made in God’s image. You are very valuable in God’s kingdom. Though Jesus was and is male, and though he chose male disciples, his ministry was supported by women and they witnessed his burial and his empty tomb. Women can serve in all kinds of ways in the church. They are really only barred from being pastors, or from preaching—which isn’t just imparting information, but is also an authoritative task. But women can teach women and children, women can mentor women, women can serve in a variety of ways, and women have served and can serve as missionaries. Eve was told she could eat all kinds of fruit except one. Women, you can choose to serve in a variety of ways except one. Will you embrace that limitation, and look at what you can do and not at what you can’t? Or will you not trust God and look at that forbidden fruit as something that is good and kept from you by God?

Really, that’s a choice for all of us, both men and women. Will we trust what God’s word or not? Will we accept what he has offered us, or will be bitterly want what he has forbidden? That is the great struggle for all human beings. If we trust Jesus for salvation, we will also trust God’s word and design. God gives us good gifts, including the gift of being a man or a woman. Let us accept his gifts with thankful hearts and serve him in love and humility.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Or corresponding to; also verse 20
  3. Or shall be toward (see 4:7)
  4. Paula Johnson, “His and Hers . . . Healthcare,” TED talk, December 2013, quoted in Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 196.
  5. There are too many verses that speak of Jesus’ lordship, his reign and rule over everything, to list here.

 

One Mediator between God and Men (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on May 13, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

I’m sure we all have people in our lives whose names cause us to go “ugh.” I don’t mean that literally, of course. But when we think about certain people, whether we know them personally or only because they’re famous, we tend to have negative reactions. That seems to be the case when it comes to politicians. Donald Trump could cure cancer tomorrow and some people would still hate him. Barack Obama could have brought about world peace, and others would continue to speak poorly of him. Hilary Clinton lost an election and is no longer in any government office, yet I still see people who claim to be Christians post negative memes about her on Facebook.

If we’re honest, we all have a list of people who we don’t like, people who we think belong in a “basket of deplorables,” people we think we’re better than, people we think are beyond redemption. I don’t think we consciously think this way. But the reality is that we don’t treat people equally, we often forget that everyone is made in God’s image and that no one is beyond being saved by Jesus Christ from sin, death, and condemnation.

Christians, how often have we prayed for politicians we dislike? How often have we prayed that they would come to a true knowledge of God? How often do we pray for our favorite athletes? We may love watching Tom Brady play, but how often do we pray that he would know Jesus? We may hope our doctor can heal us, but we often treat him or her more as an instrument, a thing that exists for us, instead of a soul in need of salvation. The same is true for that neighbor we don’t care for, or that in-law who we might be happy never to see again. Whether we realize it or not, we seem to act as if these people don’t need Jesus. Or, if we realize it, we don’t care to do anything about it.

Throughout history, there have been people who have rather consciously thought that certain types of people could never be right with God. That seems to have been the case almost two thousand years ago in the city of Ephesus, part of modern Turkey and then part of the Roman Empire. In that city, there were people teaching that only some people could be God’s people. It appears they might have thought that only law-abiding Jewish Christians could be God’s people. But since this is not the case, the apostle Paul wrote to his younger associate, Timothy, to tell them that this is not the truth.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy. And in today’s passage, 1 Timothy 2:1–7, we’ll see that Paul tells Timothy a few important truths. One, Christians should pray for all people. Two, God desires all people to be saved. Three, there is only one God and one way to God, Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. And, four, Paul was sent by God to preach the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, which shows that not only Jews could come to know Jesus. All of these points focus on the fact that all people need salvation from the condemnation that comes along with our sin and that Jesus is the only way to be saved. Since condemnation is our biggest problem, and salvation our biggest need, and since there’s only one way to be saved, we should put great emphasis on the gospel in our prayers, our personal lives, and in the life of the church.

Let’s read 1 Timothy 2:1–7, and then I’ll explain those points in more detail.

1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.[1]

At this point in the letter, Paul begins to tell Timothy how people in the church should behave. He says that they should pray. He uses various words for prayer—supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings—that cover the range of prayer requests. The point is that we should pray on behalf of others. We should plead with God on their behalf. If these people aren’t Christians, they probably aren’t praying for themselves to the one, true God. They certainly aren’t praying for their own salvation. We may be the only ones praying for those people, whoever they are.

Though Paul doesn’t mention this idea here, all Christians are royal priests, priests of the king. The apostle Peter tells Christians, in 1 Peter 2:9–10:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Priests intercede on behalf of others to God. They mediate God’s blessings to others. That’s what Paul has in mind here.

Paul stresses that they should pray for all people: Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, men and women, rich and poor. We should pray even for civic rulers, “kings and all who are in high positions.” We should pray that they would rule wisely and righteously. We should pray that they would fulfill the God-ordained purpose for government. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:13–17, says,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Paul writes about the government in a similar way in Romans 13:1–7. The government has been established by God to punish evil, to provide order. We should pray they do their job.

Keep in mind that the emperor of the Roman Empire at this time was Nero (ruled 54–68). He was, to say the least, a sketchy character. His mother, Agrippina, was from the imperial family of Augustus. It’s rumored that she had an incestuous relationship with her own brother, Caligula, who was emperor (37–41), and whom she plotted to kill. She later married her uncle, Claudius, who was the emperor after Caligula (41–54). It seems that she poisoned Claudius so that her son, Nero, could become the next emperor. Nero had been adopted by Claudius and married Claudius’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, his step-sister. When he had been emperor for five years, he had his mother killed. He cheated on his wife with his mistress, Poppaea, and had his wife banished and then killed. It’s possible that he also killed Poppaea, his second wife, by kicking her in the abdomen when she was pregnant, though we may never know the truth. There were many other sexual misdeeds and murderous intrigues in his life, but he might be best known for blaming a raging fire in Rome, which occurred in 64, on Christians. This is what the historian Suetonius says about Nero’s treatment of Christians:

They were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and torn by dogs; were crucified, and set on fire, that they might serve for lights in the night-time. Nero offered his garden for this spectacle, and exhibited the games of the Circus by this dreadful illumination. Sometimes they were covered with wax and other combustible materials, after which a sharp stake was put under their chin, to make them stand upright, and they were burnt alive, to give light to the spectators.[2]

This was the “king” that Paul wanted Christians to pray for! Paul surely wrote this letter before the year 64, but he was aware of the emperor’s bad character. He must have known how corrupt kings could be. Yet, still, he asks that Christians pray for these people. Jesus told us to pray for our enemies, not just the people we like or agree with (Matt. 5:43–48).

Praying for these people can have many positive results. Though Paul doesn’t mention this here, praying for people who, we don’t naturally like can reduce feelings of hate. Also, God hears our prayers and will act on them to help these people. That’s what John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), a famous preacher around the time of Augustine, said. In one of his sermons, over sixteen hundred years ago, he said this about praying for all people, including kings:

From this, two advantages result. First, hatred towards those who are without is done away; for no one can feel hatred towards those for whom he prays: and they again are made better by the prayers that are offered for them, and by losing their ferocious disposition towards us. For nothing is so apt to draw men under teaching, as to love, and be loved. Think what it was for those who persecuted, scourged, banished, and slaughtered the Christians, to hear that those whom they treated so barbarously offered fervent prayers to God for them.[3]

Imagine how different things would be if we were known more for praying for people who are opposed to us.

Paul says here that the purpose of such prayers is “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” I believe that Paul means that we should pray that these rulers—whether presidents, congressmen, governors, Supreme Court justices—would do their job so that there can be peace and order in our time. And if we have prayed for them, we can rest knowing that we have done what is godly.

We shouldn’t just pray for peace so that we can live easier lives. We should pray that there would be peace and righteousness so that the message of Jesus can be freely communicated. Evil regimes have a way of hindering the progress of the gospel. Yes, nothing can stop the word of God from being spread, but when governments make it illegal to own a Bible or to gather together in a church, it’s a lot harder to disciple new Christians or to tell others about Jesus.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see that there were times when even Paul benefitted from the protection of the Roman Empire (Acts 19:23–41; 21:27–36; 23:12–35). Of course, Paul was also imprisoned by the Romans and would eventually die at their hands. But he knew that when the government functioned according to God’s revealed will, things go well for the gospel.

I think Paul wants us to pray for all people because God wants all people to be saved. That’s the second point we see in this passage. What does this mean?

Does God want each and every person to be saved? If that is the case, God certainly has the ability to save each and ever person. He can direct their hearts to believe in Jesus. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” If he can direct the king’s heart where he wills, he can direct our hearts.

Well, it’s possible that Paul means God wants each and every person to be saved, and yet he can’t save each and every person for some good reason.

Some people believe that God can’t save all because he must respect each person’s free will. These people will say that real love cannot be forced, that God must allow us to make the choices. So, free will is more important than the salvation of each and every person.

The problem with this view is that it rests on things that aren’t in the Bible. Nowhere in the Bible is there an extended discussion on free will. Are we truly free to make any choice? The Bible does say that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The fact is that because the power of sin has corrupted the world, our hearts are corrupted as well. If we are left to our own free choices, we would never choose God or love him.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one can come to him for eternal life unless God the Father has drawn that person. And if God the Father has drawn that person to Jesus, that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day, the day of judgment (John 6:44). That means that only those who will receive eternal life are drawn by God to Jesus. Jesus also says that unless one is first born again by the Holy Spirit, that person can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it (John 3:1–8). The only way we can choose to believe in Jesus, love him, and obey him, is if God empowers us. And the one who is empowered will do that.

Others who acknowledge the language of God choosing and predestining people believe that God wants to save everyone but can’t because his plan to save only some, the ones he predestined to salvation, brings him greater glory. While this may be hard to digest, I think there is truth to this.

But this ongoing debate probably isn’t what Paul has in mind.

I think we get confused by the language of “all.” We tend to think it has to mean “absolutely all” or “each and every.” But look at the way “all” is used elsewhere.

In just a moment, in verse 6, we’ll see that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means he paid the penalty for sin, he paid the price for our redemption. Yet it can’t mean that Jesus redeemed each and every single person. If that were true, no one would be condemned. No one would go to hell. But the Bible clearly states that there will be some—many, really—who reject Jesus and stand condemned. We don’t revel in that truth. It’s something that should bother us. But it remains the truth.

In 1 Timothy 4:10, Paul says that God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” If God is the Savior of each and every single person, then all would be saved from condemnation. But I think Paul doesn’t mean that. Again, in Titus 2:11, Paul writes, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” I don’t think Paul means “each and every person is saved.” So, what does Paul mean?

I think Paul means that Jesus is the Savior of all types of people, Jews and Gentiles, rulers and slaves, rich and poor, men and women, people of all nations and languages. Sometimes this is expressed as “all without distinction.” Jesus is the world’s only Savior. There is no other. If Paul meant “all without exception,” then you would have to believe in universalism, the idea that every single person will be saved, that no one will remain in hell. We might wish this to be true, but it’s not.

The truth is that God will save whom he wants to save (Rom. 9:15, 18, 19–24). But we don’t know who those people are. We should strive to bring all people to the knowledge of the truth, even if we know that not all people will believe.

That brings us to third point in this passage. Look again at verses 5 and 6: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

There is only one God. Paul is probably making an allusion to the great Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, which is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” There is only one God—not a god of the Jews and another god of the Romans and yet another god for Americans. And there is only one way to God, and that is Jesus. He is the only mediator. Here, Paul stresses that Jesus is a man. But Jesus is also God. In Titus 2:13, Paul says that “our blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Jesus is the God-man, the only one who can stand in the gap between God and human beings. Because Jesus has two natures, a divine one and a human one, he can unite both parties.

And that indicates what our problem is. We are separated from God. The reason that is so is because the first human beings rebelled against God. They didn’t trust him. They turned away from God, and the world has been a mess ever since. We are born with hearts that don’t love God the way we should. As a result, we do ungodly things. Our hearts and our actions separate us from God. And the only way back to God is through Jesus.

Paul says that Jesus gave himself as a ransom. The language of “ransom” refers to a price that is paid to bring us freedom. We are in bondage to our sin, enslaved by our desires, and bound in the chains of condemnation. We cannot free ourselves from this position. But Jesus offered his own life to pay the penalty for our sins. God is a righteous judge. He must punish sin and sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. So, he gave his only Son, and his only Son laid down his life for his people. That’s why Jesus says of himself, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Notice that he said he gave his life as a ransom for “many”—not all.

As a man, Jesus could die for other men. (To be clear, Jesus was a human being who died for other human beings, not just males.) As God, his sacrifice can pay for a vast number of sins and sinners, throughout space and time. The fact that it took the death of the Son of God to pay for our sins shows how problematic sin is, and how our salvation comes at a great cost.

And since there is only one God, there is only one way to receive the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes,

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith (Rom. 3:29–30).

We are not saved through our own efforts, obedience, or goodness. We can only be right in God’s eyes by trusting in his Son. The same is true for Jews and Gentiles, for Romans and Americans, for emperors and presidents and illegal aliens, for straight and gay, men and women, adults and children. The only way to be made right in God’s eyes is to receive the perfect status of the only sinless man who ever lived, and to trust that this man’s death wiped away our sins.

Since Jesus is the only way to God, we should strive to bring people to a true knowledge of Jesus. That knowledge is more than knowing facts about Jesus. That knowledge is a relationship of trust, love, and obedience. Real faith leads to knowing facts, but it also leads to trusting a person, the God-man Jesus Christ.

Paul could say all of this because God appointed him to be a preacher of the gospel. He was sent to the Gentiles to tell them about Jesus. That’s the fourth point he makes in these verses.

Paul knew he couldn’t reach everyone, but he did what he could so that many souls could be saved. In another letter, 1 Corinthians, he writes this:

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1 Cor. 9:19–23).

Paul didn’t sin to reach sinners, but otherwise he set aside his personal preferences in order to reach others. He didn’t let his own culture be an obstacle to reaching others. Though he was Jewish, he wasn’t afraid to break with the old traditions of Judaism in order to reach Gentiles. He didn’t break God’s moral law to do this, but he broke with the way “things were always done” in order to carry out his mission.

I want to close this message by thinking about what all of this means for us. This passage focuses on salvation, and we should, too. That is particularly true of how we think about the church.

When we don’t focus on salvation and the gospel first, we forget that our greatest problem is our sin. We forget that our real need is salvation. And we forget that this is the need of every human being. A church that isn’t focused on the gospel forgets that each and every human being is a sinner in need of a rescue. Instead, we become inward focused, dwelling only on creating a nice church environment in which everyone is “happy” and “comfortable.” We focus on our personal preferences. It’s all talk of “I like this” type of music and “I don’t like that” song or sermon or whatever.

A church that has pushed the gospel to the sidelines might seem very nice and peaceful. It may seem very loving, because no one is stepping on the other person’s toes. But if the gospel isn’t front and center, that peace is superficial. That’s because the only true peace is brought about by Jesus. True peace—reconciliation between God and people, and even between one human being and another—comes only through Jesus. And if we’re not concerned about the souls of the lost, focusing our prayers and our deeds toward their salvation, we’re not loving them at all. We might even say it’s a form of hate.

Imagine this: if you had a person in your life who desperately needed a cure for a disease, and you knew where that person could get that cure and refused to tell that person where to get it, you wouldn’t call that love. You would call it hate. Christians are beggars who know where to get the bread. We should tell others where to get it. We should pray that they would take that gift.

Perhaps we need to realign the way we think of other people. Perhaps we have unconsciously thought of others as being beyond God’s reach. We may have thought, “Oh, that person will never become a Christian.” When we do that, we deny God’s power to save even the worst of sinners. When we do that, we act superior to non-Christians. We may start to think we are Christians because we are better, purer, wiser, or whatever. And when we do that, we fail to see that lost people are God’s image bearers who need a rescue just as much as we did.

If you’re not a Christian, I want to apologize if you’ve run into Christians who act as if they’re better than you. I want to apologize if you’ve never heard the message of Jesus before. And I want you to know that you have a problem. Your life isn’t centering around God. That means it’s centered around something else. Whatever that is—you, your job, your possessions, entertainment, politics, a relationship—that’s your functional god, the object of your worship. But you were made to worship the one, true God. All of us don’t worship him the way we should. We fail to love and honor our Creator, the one who upholds the universe and everything in it at every moment, the source of life and love and goodness and beauty. God is patient with you. He is putting up with your rebellion. But he won’t do that forever. God wants to restore his creation. He can only do that by removing sin from the world. And he will one day. But he will remove all sinners, too, unless their sins have been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice. And the only way to have your sins paid for by Jesus is to trust him. You need to believe in Jesus, to be united to him by faith. That is the only way to have a relationship with God, to have eternal life. It’s the only way to have true peace. I urge you to follow Jesus. And I want to help you in any way that I can.

But turning back to the church, I must say this: When we as a church don’t focus on salvation, we lose our way. We get caught up in, and hung up on, our little traditions. We think church is about having our way. We fight about silly things. I think that’s why Paul says, in verse 8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” The men in Ephesus were fighting because they had lost their way. Again, if we take our focus off of the gospel, we focus on ourselves, our comfort, our personal preferences.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everything in the church should be geared only towards evangelism. The church isn’t just about salvation. We need to teach new believers, equip all believers for ministry, and worship together. We need to encourage and challenge each other, and even discipline people who have gone astray. But if we don’t lead with the gospel, we will drift away from our mission.

And if we don’t focus on the gospel, our worship will suffer. When we are think often of our salvation, we should remain in a state of gratitude. We have been saved by God, through no merit or effort of our own. The fact that God would save anyone at the cost of the death of his Son should lead us to praise God all the more. God’s grace should lead to our thanksgiving.

If Jesus is the only mediator to God, and if he gave his life as a ransom for all kinds of people, and if God wants all kinds of people to be saved, shouldn’t we do what Paul did and what he asked Timothy to do? Shouldn’t we prioritize evangelism? Shouldn’t we forget our personal preferences and become all things to all people? Shouldn’t we pray for lost souls?

May the Lord help us to get back on track and stay there. “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 57, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  3. John Chrysostom, “Homily VI,” “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to Timothy,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. James Tweed and Philip Schaff, vol. 13, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 426.

 

 

Rooted in Christ

This sermon was preached on April 15, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

This past week, we had a memorial service. It was somewhat typical for a church service. A lot of the people there are churchgoers or used to be churchgoers. People generally dressed appropriately for the occasion. And that’s usually how things go. But several years ago, I was part of an interesting memorial service at my last church, where I was associate pastor. A man named Henry had died and his family came to our church because they needed a place where they could have a service. Henry wasn’t a member of that church. His family and friends were not members of the church. But the senior pastor agreed to conduct the service because he thought it would be a good opportunity to tell people about Jesus.

So, on that Saturday, we had an entirely different congregation show up at our church. The service started late because at least half the group was outside smoking. As I remember it, there were a lot of people in denim and leather. During the service, there was an opportunity for anyone to share memories or thoughts about Henry. One man stood up and said, “The thing about Henry is, he stuck to his roots. No matter what, he was true to his roots.” That was about all he said. Now, from hearing people speak, I got the sense that Henry touched many lives. He seemed to be a good friend and the people there loved him. But this friend, the one who stood up and spoke, didn’t say what Henry’s roots were. I suppose his friend meant that Henry was true to himself, a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy who was loyal to the people around him.

Who among us wouldn’t want someone to say at our funeral, “He stuck to his roots”? When we first hear that, it seems like a good thing. It sounds like this person didn’t compromise. No, he stuck to his guns. He didn’t sell out.

But we’re only as good as our roots. I don’t mean historical roots, or genealogical roots. We all have those, and sometimes they’re not good, but we can move away from them.

What I mean is that each one of our lives is rooted in something. Our lives are based on something, they’re built upon some foundation. Usually, this is what we believe is true or what is most valuable to us. For Christians, that root, that foundation, is Jesus Christ, our Lord. Today, in a passage from Colossians, we’re going to see how Christians need to stay rooted in Christ by continuing in their faith, avoiding all other philosophies and religions, and remembering the gospel.

Today, we’re going to be looking at Colossians 2:6–15. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to a group of Christians in the city of Colossae. Let’s start by reading the first two verses:

6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.[1]

In the first two verses of this passage, Paul tells the Colossians to walk in Christ as they have received him. “Received” is a technical term that refers to receiving the teachings of Christ. The Colossians have heard about Jesus and they have believed in him. So, Paul tells them to continue to follow Jesus as their Lord. They are supposed to be rooted in him and built up in him, as they are established in the faith, just as they were taught. This kind of life should result in an abundance of thanksgiving.

This passage teaches us something very important about Christianity. It shows us that making a commitment to Jesus, professing faith in him, is merely the beginning of a relationship with God. Real faith, or trust, in Jesus is not one moment in your life. Real faith, the kind that unites you to Jesus and puts you into a right relationship with God, is a lifelong thing. We need to continue in our faith and live as though Jesus is the Lord of our lives. Jesus should be our King, our Master, the one who “commands our destiny” as we just sang.[2] When Paul says, “built up in him,” he implies that we are a work in progress. We are supposed to grow into what God wants us to be as his children.

These two verses alone also show that salvation should lead to thanksgiving. Christians, we should be thankful that God has saved us out of a dark future of condemnation and a bleak present of a meaningless, hopeless life. As Paul says in Colossians 1:13–14,

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

And this passage touches on a very important theme that runs through the whole Bible. It is the theme of the temple. The church is God’s temple. We are supposed to be the “place” where God dwells on earth, where God is worshiped, and where the forgiveness of sins can be found. I think that’s why later Paul says that we—together, as the body of Christ, as the temple of the living God—have been filled by and in Jesus. Our purpose is to glorify God by worshiping him in all areas of our lives. And our lives should be marked by thanksgiving as we respond to the gospel of grace. We who were once dead have been made alive in Christ. We are now his servants and he is our Master. For that reason, we shouldn’t let anything else take us captive.

That is why Paul warns the Colossians not to be taken captive by any other philosophies. Let’s read verse 8: See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we must avoid all other empty, deceitful, rival philosophies. Paul doesn’t condemn all philosophy. After all, the word simply means “love of wisdom.” Paul has just told us in verse 3 that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” are hidden in Christ. The kind of philosophy that Paul warns about is the philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. The key is that these philosophies are described as “empty deceit.” They are empty because they cannot fill us up the way that Jesus does. And they are deceitful because they are not true.

We know that there are a lot of manmade philosophies out there. And these philosophies are godless ones, such as naturalism, the view that there is no God or anything supernatural, or scientism, that all of reality can be explained through science. These are essentially worldviews in which God does not exist, and all can be explained by science or by human reasoning. In Colossae, the “empty philosophy” might have combined Jewish regulations, such as dietary laws and circumcision, with mysticism and a form of asceticism. If you look at the next passage in Colossians, verses 16–23, you can see that. The Roman Empire was full of many different religions, and there might have been a temptation for these Christians in Colossae (a city in what is now known as Turkey) to add other religions or philosophies to Jesus. Certain people in Colossae might have believed that these things were necessary in order to have a right standing with God. But Paul says that the Colossians need nothing other than Christ.

It’s a little harder to know what Paul means when he writes about philosophies according to “the elemental spirits of the world.” The “elemental spirits” can either mean the physical elements of this world, such as air, earth, fire, and water. They can also mean spiritual beings like demons. Perhaps the best way to understand this phrase is to see it as both. Unbelievers worship the creation instead of the Creator. These “elemental spirits” somehow represent idols, or rivals to God. Paul could have meant that these “elemental spirits,” or “elemental principles,” were being taught by some false teachers. Ultimately, false teaching and false religious practices are rooted in the demonic realm. They belong to Satan, the father of all lies (John 8:44).

In our day, many empty and deceitful philosophies try to usurp the throne of Christ. Any form of idolatry is a rival to Christ as Lord. Obsession with romance, wealth, fitness, or politics can prove to be an empty philosophy.

There are many false teachings that creep into the church, like the postmodern thought that no one religion can be true, or that all religions lead to the same place, or that everyone is saved and there is no hell. There are other false teachings that become popular, such as New Age teachings. The specifics come and go, but they all tend to do with finding spiritual healing and peace outside of Jesus. And there are many false teachings that attempt to say that Christianity is false. I like to call this “Dan Brown history.” You know the story: there were many competing Gospels, and the Church decided which Gospels to keep and which ones to cover up.

I realize that there are many people who don’t regard themselves as religious, or who don’t think they have become captive to any philosophy or ideology. I think all of us are religious. We all think something is ultimate, and that something doesn’t require any other explanation. That something tends to be our god. And people seem to do a lot of irrational things.

This week I heard about a man named Braco the Gazer. He’s a Croatian man who appears to thousands of people and just gazes at them for several minutes. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t stare. He just sincerely gazes. And people claim that his gaze gives them feelings of love and light and energy and heat, and that his gaze can even bring healing.

Perhaps such things have a kind of placebo effect. But they don’t unite us to God. They don’t make us right with him or give us eternal life. That’s why we need to reject all of these false teachings. Christianity is a true view of all of reality. Christians need to develop a Christian worldview that tells us that the purpose of life is to glorify God; all truth comes from God; the problem of the world is sin; and the only solution is Jesus. We need to guard our doctrine and the doctrine of our churches.

Sadly, I have seen many examples of people leaving their Christian roots because of empty philosophies. I have a friend whom I met in Austin when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas. We met at the church that I was attending and eventually joined. I was studying voice at the university and he was a singer, too. Thought he had a day job working in a government office, he wanted to be a Christian R&B singer. He had even recorded an album. We became friends and occasionally had lunch together. We would talk about life and music.

From what I knew of this man when I lived in Austin, he was a godly man. He had a wife and three daughters, and it seemed to me that he wanted to use his musical abilities to serve the Lord. It was only after I left Austin that I noticed a change. The next time I came back to visit, I had lunch with this man. He started to tell me how he had been doing some “research” on the Internet. He told me there were other Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas. He told me other religions featured a virgin birth and a resurrection. I wasn’t very familiar with these things at the time, but now I know that there is a lot of bad history out there. The other Gospels were written in the second century or later. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was written towards the end of the second century. Thomas certainly did not write it. The same is true for the Gospel of Judas and other false gospels.

At any rate, this man was reading this inaccurate history and he was starting to doubt his faith. On my next trip to Austin, I once again had lunch with this man. He told me he was starting to look into Judaism. After all, if he couldn’t trust Christianity, he might as well go back to the roots of Christianity.

The last time I saw this man, he said he was just trying to live his life. He said he meditated on Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He told me he realized he needed to work on loving himself better. He also hinted at having some desire for contact with men. His comments were very ambiguous, but I could tell he had struggled with same-sex attraction.

This was the last time I saw him, but every few months, we would talk on the phone. Eventually, he told me some big news. He had decided to leave his wife. He had also tried out homosexuality. Though he had sex with a man, he didn’t know if he wanted to pursue being gay. He was obviously very mixed up. The last time I talked to him, he told me he was doing naked yoga and be was still trying to sort out his sexual orientation. From the looks of his Facebook profile, he is involved in some group that makes sexual pleasure their religion.

That’s just one example of someone I know who has left the faith. Another, closer friend I had seemed to be a strong Christian. But something has happened in her life, and I’m not sure what. All I know is that she divorced her husband and is now exploring astrology.

Now, you don’t have to get caught up in strange things to be taken captive by an empty, deceitful philosophy. People leave the faith in order to pursue desires, relationships, careers, or simply because they don’t want Jesus to be Lord over their lives.

We must guard our hearts, guard our doctrine, and even guard each other so that we can continue to stay rooted in Christ. We don’t need any other philosophies, because all true wisdom is found in Christ. And he is the only one who can save us.

If we are to stay rooted in Christ, we need to remember the gospel message. That means we must continue worshiping, reading the Bible, and even preaching the gospel to ourselves. We must remember that in Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. If we are in Christ, our old self has died. If we are in Christ, we are risen to new life. If we are in Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. And if we are in Christ, our enemies have been defeated.

Let’s read verses 9–15:

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Verses 9–15 summarize the key elements of the gospel message. In Christ, we have access to the fullness of God. In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us once again that the fullness of God dwells in the physical body of Christ. “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.” Jesus is God, or, to put it more accurately, the God-man. And if we are united to Jesus, we have access to the fullness of God. Think about that: if the fullness of God dwells in Jesus, and we are “in Christ” through faith, we have direct access to all of God. If we are the body of Christ and he is the head of that body, we are connected to the one who is over all rulers and all authorities. If we are the temple, God’s dwelling place on Earth is in us. Our Lord is the Lord of the universe. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. There is no greater power out there. Why would we want to worship something else or pursue any other philosophy? In Christ, we have everything we need.

That doesn’t mean we can’t learn other things, like math and science and history. But we should learn those subjects knowing that math and science are possible because they reflect the orderliness of the mind of God and the order and design of his creation. All truth is God’s truth. So, we should learn to connect all of life, including everything we learn, to God. We should learn to interpret every fact in light of the existence of God.

Beginning in verse 11, Paul gets to the heart of the gospel. In Christ, our old selves have died. Paul talks about this transformation that God performs in Christians by using the metaphor of circumcision. God told Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that all of the men among God’s covenant people had to be circumcised (Genesis 17). Literally, this was a surgery, a putting off of part of the flesh. But even in the Old Testament, circumcision took on a metaphorical quality. Israelites were told they needed to have circumcised hearts, which meant they needed to have new hearts, hearts changed by God (Deut. 10:12; 30:6; Jer. 4:4). We might say that to be right with God, we need to have spiritual heart surgery. That’s because before that transformation, we don’t desire or love rightly. Our problem is that we don’t love God and other people the way we should. We don’t desire to do what is noble and right, at least not all the time and not with the right motives.

Here, Paul says that all Christians have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.” In other words, God is the one who did this circumcision. God has performed this spiritual heart surgery on his people. It was done “by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” The meaning of this is debated. Some people think the circumcision of Christ refers to his actual circumcision, which is a reminder that Jesus obeyed the law, the covenant demands of God. Paedobaptists—those who believe children of believers should be baptized while they are infants—believe that Christian baptism is the equivalent of circumcision, and this is what they baptize babies. However, the mention of faith in verse 12 shows why this view is wrong. Baptism apart from faith does nothing.

Other people think the circumcision of Christ is a way of referring to his death. When Jesus died, he was “cut off.” Still others think that it refers to the spiritual circumcision that Christ performs on us. Even in the Old Testament, circumcision language was used for regeneration, or being “born again.”[3] God told the stubborn, rebellious people of Israel that they needed circumcised hearts and even ears (Jer. 6:10; Acts 7:51). To listen to God’s voice and respond to it rightly, we need to be transformed. We often think of the gospel as dealing with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And that’s right. But part of the good news is also that God transforms us so that we can respond rightly to Jesus. He gives us the Holy Spirit.

I think the “circumcision of Christ” refers both to his death and to our regeneration. If we are united to Christ in faith, we participate in his death. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Romans 6:3–4. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

True circumcision is also described in Romans. Romans 2:28–29 says, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” To be circumcised by God is to have a radical heart surgery performed by God the Father, through the Son, by means of the Holy Spirit.

In Christ, we become spiritually alive. Not only do we die with Christ, but we rise with him, too. This dying and rising is represented in baptism, which is considered part of the complex of events—faith, repentance, receiving the Spirit—that marks our initiation into the family of God. The key element in verse 12 is faith in God’s ability to do powerful things. If God can raise Jesus from the grave, he can make us into new creations. This is very similar to what Paul writes in Ephesians 2. We once were dead in our sins and now we are alive in Christ.

In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, by dying in our place, we have the forgiveness of sins. Our debt to God that stood over us with its legal demands was nailed to the cross. This reminds me of that verse in “It Is Well with My Soul”:

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

On the cross, Jesus paid our debt. We all have turned our backs on God. Sure, we may think of him when we have a need, but the rest of the time we don’t think of him and love him as we should. We don’t live life on his terms. Our lives are rooted in something else. God cannot have this, because our sin ruins his creation, and because he is a righteous, perfect judge. Yet Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live—always rooted in God—and he died in our place, paying the penalty for our crimes against God. And his resurrection proves that his death paid that debt in full. Jesus took on the sentence for our crimes against God and walked out of the grave a free man, having satisfied the penalty for our sin.

Finally, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven have accomplished one last, important thing. On the cross, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to save us through Jesus. But Jesus also died because Satan and the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted him eliminated. The devil and the Sanhedrin thought that they defeated Christ when he was crucified, but the irony is that through death, God defeated his enemies. When Jesus died, the authorities stripped him naked, paraded him in front of angry crowds, and celebrated their triumph over him. But Paul tells us the reality is quite different. Through Jesus’ death and subsequent vindication, God stripped his enemies naked, paraded them in public, and celebrated his triumph over them. This may not be apparent to the world right now, but when Jesus returns, it will be.

Once again, we see that Jesus is Lord over all authorities and rulers, on earth and in heaven. If our root is in Christ, no enemy can defeat us. We must remember to preach this gospel message of regeneration and forgiveness and triumph to ourselves, to remember that we have everything we need in Christ. We need to do this in the midst of temptation or discouragement, to keep us from slipping away from Jesus.

Now that we’ve looked at the details of this passage, how should we respond?

Let me first ask this: what is your life rooted in? What is your life built on? If it’s not truly built on Jesus, or on the one true, three-in-one God that is the Father, Son, and Spirit, it will be built on something else, something that isn’t lasting.

If you haven’t built your life on Jesus, I would urge you to do that. Other things may sound good. Other ideas, ways of life, or even religions may sound very attractive. But they either won’t be true (in the case of other religions) or they won’t put you in the right with God (in the case of philosophies). Only Jesus can forgive our sins, change our hearts, and give us eternal life. But we must be rooted in Jesus. We can’t plant Jesus into another root. It doesn’t work that way. He won’t be built on our lives. It’s the other way around.

A lot of people have wrongly been taught that to become a Christian means saying a prayer, or making a one-time confession of faith. Now, we can and should pray to God when we come to faith, and we should confess that we believe that Jesus is Lord and God and that he died for our sins. But real faith isn’t just saying words. Real faith is a living, continuing trust in Jesus. There are many false converts, people who once said they believed and were baptized and are not following Jesus. Let’s not be fooled. Those people are not Christians. Anyone can say some words. Anyone can get wet. Anyone can appear to follow Jesus for a short time. But real Christians continue to follow Christ.

If you’re not a Christian, or if you’re not sure you’re really a Christian, I would love to talk to you about what it means to follow Jesus.

If you are a Christian, how do we stay rooted in Christ?

There are some practical ways to help us stay rooted in Christ. We need to continue to read our Bibles. My goal is to read the entire Bible every year. I think it’s a reasonable goal—though I’ve often failed. You can do it by reading twenty-three chapters each week, or a little over three chapters a day. We need to remember that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). But there’s no law saying you have to read in the Bible in one year. Try reading it over the course of two years. If you read two chapters a day, even if you miss a day here or there, you can read it two years’ time. Staying in the Bible helps us remember what is true and what is valuable. It keeps us rooted in Christ.

We can also read other books that help us understand the Bible or help understand how to connect the Bible to every area of life. What’s important is that we are careful about our inputs. You will only be as good as the diet your brain and your heart are getting. So, choose wisely.

Here’s something I want you to think about. We have a limited amount of time, and we should be careful how we spend our time. Think only about reading. Tony Reinke, in his book on reading called Lit!, makes the following observations. There are currently eighteen million books in the Library of Congress. In fifty years, there will probably be at least twenty-eight million books. If in the next fifty years we read one book a week, which is a lot of reading, we could read 2,600 books. That sounds impressive. But that means that for every book we read, we choose not to read ten thousand other books. We will only be able to read one out of every ten thousand books, and only if we read one book per week.[4] So choose your reading wisely. Don’t waste all your time on the Internet, watching TV and movies, and reading bad books.

We can also stay rooted in Christ by worshiping him, particularly on the Lord’s Day with other Christians. Remember that Paul said we should abound in thanksgiving. Be thankful that God saved you and show your thanks through prayer and through praise. Sing of how good God is and talk to him regularly.

Staying rooted in Christ means that we have to dig up weeds that would threaten us. Whether those weeds are sinful practices or distractions or philosophies, ideologies, or even other religious ideas, if they are contrary to Jesus, we need to root them out of our lives so that we can stay rooted in Christ.

Finally, remember the gospel. Remind yourself that you have sinned against the holy Creator and are deserving of eternal condemnation, and you have been saved by God’s grace, which is available at great cost: Jesus’ death on the cross. Preach the gospel to the people around you, whether it’s your congregation, your Sunday school class, your family, or your friends. Never assume that they know the good news of Jesus Christ. And even if they know it, we never move past the gospel. We need to keep hearing it and thinking about it. It keeps us rooted in Christ.

When we continue in our faith, reject the world’s deceitful philosophies, and remember the gospel, we stay rooted in Christ. If you do these things, when you die, someone will stand up at your funeral and say, “He stuck to his roots, no matter what.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. These words come from the hymn “In Christ Alone.”
  3. For the role of the Holy Spirit in regeneration, even in the Old Testament, see James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Indwelling Spirit: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006).
  4. Tony Reinke, Lit! (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 93–94.

 

Rooted in Christ (Colossians 2:6-15)

What is your life rooted in? What is it built on? If it’s not built on Jesus, it’s on shaky ground. Find out why it matters that our lives are rooted in Christ and how we can keep our lives rooted in Christ. This sermon on Colossians 2:6-15 was preached by Brian Watson.

My Lord and My God! (John 20)

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

My Lord and My God!

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

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

I Have Not Come to Call the Righteous

This sermon was preached on March 25, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.

These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city.[1] In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly.[2] Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.

This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:

We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.

Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.[3]

New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.

When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.

So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[4]

This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”

But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.

To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”

Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.

What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.

When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.

And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.

This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.

The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!

This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.”[5] Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.

Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:

Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.[6]

The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.

The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.

Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.

As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.

But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.

These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:

33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”

The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.

Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.

But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.

Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.

Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.

Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?

I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.

If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.

And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says.[7] We need to keep coming back to Jesus.

Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.

Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.

The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.

People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.

Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.

I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.

We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?

Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”

For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).

Notes

  1. Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a
  2. An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html
  3. Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497.
  6. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251.
  7. “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

 

I Have Not Come to Call the Righteous (Luke 5:27-39)

Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.

Let Down Your Nets (Luke 5:1-11)

Who are you? What is your identity? If our identity is found in our jobs, feelings, desires, accomplishments, or relationships, then our identity won’t be stable and it can be crushed. But our identity can be found in one who never fails. Jesus takes sinful people, losers and failures, and turns them into his people. Find out why Jesus gives us great hope. Pastor Brian Watson preaches this message based on Luke 5:1-11.

Let Down Your Nets (Luke 5:1-11)

This sermon was preached on March 11, 2018 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Who do you think you are?

That’s an important question. I don’t mean, what are you? The question of what human beings are is an important one, to be sure. But I have something far more personal in mind. Who are you? What is your identity?

The question of identity is an important one. It concerns how we think of ourselves and how we think of others. Think about what happens when you meet someone new. You start to identify that person by categories. We think of what a person looks like, his or her gender and age and looks, how that person is dressed, how they speak and act, and so on. When we get to know people, we often ask, “What do you do?” We mean, “What do you do for work?” or, “What do you do for a living?” That’s another way of identifying someone. We may ask, “Where are you from?” That, too, is a way of placing that person in a certain category.

The question of identity has also come front-and-center in many important political and cultural debates. The term “identity politics” addresses the issue of how people’s identity affects their politics. As far as I can tell, this began as an attempt to organize minority voices, which isn’t a bad thing at all. If, say, people who have a certain skin color and/or ethnicity aren’t getting their voices heard in the public square, it’s good for them to band together and make their views known. But what has happened is that now we pigeonhole people according to gender, skin color, religion, and sexual orientation, among other things. Instead of evaluating people according “to the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King put it,[1] we assume that if people are white male Christians, they must think this way, or can’t possibly have anything to say to that issue. It seems that instead of getting less prejudiced, we’re getting more prejudiced, putting everyone into camps before we even know what each person is really like.

Today, many people identify themselves according to their desires, and this creates new classes of people. People who are transgender have a biological sex, yet they self-identify as having a different gender, the one usually associated with the opposite sex. So, a transgender man is a biological woman who feels that she is a man. People who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual identify themselves according to sexual desires. These identities are not rooted in biology, but only in desire. Imagine if you self-identified according to other dispositions, like pride, anger, lust, jealousy, and covetousness.

Our identities can also be based around our accomplishments or failures. We can find our self-worth in our jobs, our awards, our degrees, the amount of money we’ve made, or the way that people view us. Or, we can think of all the jobs we’ve lost, the awards we failed to earn, the degrees we never earned, the money we’ve lost, and the relationships we’ve lost.

What is your identity? Is it based on what you do for a living? Your political views? Your ethnicity? Your looks? Your desires? Your achievements? Your failures? When you think of yourself, what comes to mind? Who are you?

I ask this question because today we’re going to look at a passage of the Gospel of Luke that deals with identity. We’ve been studying this biography of Jesus for about three months, and we’ve seen that Jesus has recently begun his public ministry. He has preached a message of God’s kingdom and he has healed people. Now, he gathers some coworkers to himself. The story is rather simple: Jesus calls Simon Peter and a couple of associates to be his followers. They were fishermen, but Jesus gives them a new vocation: instead of catching fish, they will now catch people. (Don’t take that literally—I’ll explain what that means in a bit.) At the heart of this story is identity. Peter saw himself as a humble fisherman and, besides that, a sinful man. Yet Jesus summons Peter to take on a new identity. We might read this story as just a bit of religious history, but it’s much more than that. Jesus is still in the habit of calling sinful people to himself, giving them new identities and new roles to play.

So, with that in mind, let’s read Luke 5:1–11:

1 On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.[2]

As I said, the story is fairly simple, but I’ll give us a few details to explain. Jesus is at the “lake of Gennesaret,” which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been gaining a following, so there were people there who wanted “to hear the word of God.” Jesus’ words are God’s words. The crowd must have left little room for Jesus to preach. We don’t know exactly where Jesus was, but it was possible that he was at a location south of Capernaum where there was a bay that formed a natural amphitheater. “Israeli scientists have verified that this bay can transmit a human voice effortlessly to several thousand people on shore.”[3] To get an appropriate place to speak to this crowd, Jesus gets in a fishing boat and has its owner, Simon Peter, sail out a little way from the shore. Jesus then preaches from the boat.

Again, Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus was preaching. We’ll hear a lot more of Jesus’ preaching as we go through the gospel. Luke is more concerned with what happens next. After Jesus finishes teaching, he tells Simon to try to fish. Now, we’re told that Simon and the other fishermen were washing the nets. This was probably a trammel net, which created a vertical wall of three layers of netting that caught fish. Because of the complexity of the nets, they needed to be washed after use. (I suppose the nets trapped weeds as well as fish.) The fact that the fishermen were washing the nets meant they were done fishing.

Simon’s response to Jesus in verse 5 is a bit skeptical, but it also shows his faith. He says, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” It’s as if he’s saying, “Jesus, why are you telling us to fish. We’ve been fishing for hours and haven’t caught a thing!” But Simon also says, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Simon’s experience tells him he won’t catch anything. It doesn’t seem likely at all. But he also trusts Jesus’ word. In chapter 4, we saw that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law by his word (Luke 4:38–39), so Simon knows that Jesus’ word is powerful. He may not realize who Jesus is yet, but he knows Jesus is someone he should listen to.

So, Simon obeys Jesus, and when he does, he finds that Jesus was right. The nets catch so much fish that they start to break. In fact, the haul was so large that Simon has to call his partners, James and John, to bring their boat. And when the fish are divided between both boats, those boats start to sink. This is no ordinary catch. How did this happen? Well, Jesus is the God-man. It’s possible that either he commanded those fish to be there at that exact time, or he knew they would be swimming by at that time and could be caught if only the nets were in place. Either way, this is a display of Jesus’ power over nature.

When all the fish are in the boats, Simon doesn’t worry about the damage to the nets or the fact that the boats may sink. No, he doesn’t worry about that at all. Instead, he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Why would Simon say something like that? Because he knows he’s in the presence of the divine. He may not realize that Jesus is the divine Son of God, but he knows that Jesus is no ordinary man, and that somehow Jesus is associated with God. His response may seem strange, but it’s perfectly natural, and fits a pattern that we see in the pages of the Bible. When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). He realized he and his fellow Israelites had spoken sinfully. When the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of God, he fell on his face (Ezek. 1:28). The same John in this passage, one of Jesus’ specially-commissioned followers, had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. John reports, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).

Why do these people respond this way? They realize who God is. They know God is perfect. God is pure. And when we see God’s holy, righteous, pure, perfection, we also see how very imperfect and impure and unrighteous we are. Who are we in comparison to God? If you were a fisherman, it would be intimidating to be in the presence of the world’s greatest fisherman. But how would you feel if you were in the presence of the one who created fish? But it’s more than that. Sin is a rebellion against God. And it’s more than just bad choices. It’s deliberately doing what is wrong. More than that, sin is a power that corrupts and contaminates us. It turns us away from God and turns us in upon ourselves, thinking that the world revolves around us. Only when we’re called out of that inward gaze, when we face the very foundation of reality, the Creator himself, do we see the horror of our own sin. If we don’t encounter God, we will never say, “I am a sinful man,” or, “I am a sinful woman.” We may, “Oh, I’ve made some mistakes,” but that’s different. Mistakes can be honest or unintentional. But sins are crimes, violations of a holy God’s will. And until we see God for who he truly is, we’ll never understand the depth of our sin.

And unless we know the depth of our sin, we’ll never truly understand the depths of God’s goodness, mercy, and grace. Think of the way Jesus deals with Simon. Jesus already knows that Simon is a sinful man. And he never says, “No, Simon, don’t be so hard on yourself.” Jesus would agree with Simon’s self-assessment. But Jesus doesn’t condemn him. No, Jesus tells Simon and his partners, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” He actually says, quite literally, “from now you will be catching men alive.” This is a bit puzzling. Of course, it’s not meant to be taken literally. What Jesus means is that they had previously spent their lives catching fish. Of course, those fish would die and be sold for food. Jesus doesn’t mean they will hunt down people. What he means is that they will be gathering people for Jesus. They will go and tell others about Jesus, about who he is and the forgiveness that he offers sinful people. A couple of weeks from now, we’ll see Jesus respond to some Jewish religious leaders who question why he spends time with obviously sinful people. Jesus says, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32).

How do Simon and his partners respond? Earlier, Jesus had told them to let down their nets, and they let their nets drop into the water to catch more fish. Now, they let down their nets—not to catch more fish, but to leave their old lives of fishing behind. They drop everything and follow Jesus. They trust his word and they follow him.

The passage is rather simple, but it’s profound. On one hand, we can see this as simply a bit of history. Jesus starts to call twelve men to himself. These twelve will follow Jesus, learn from him, see the miracles he performed, and then witness his death and resurrection. He happened to call some fishermen to join him, he performed a miracle to show them something of his identity, and they followed him.

But this passage reveals a paradigm: Jesus deliberately calls humble, sinful people to follow him. And those who follow Jesus trust his word and they leave their old lives behind. They have new identities and a new role to play in life.

And this is great news. Earlier, I said that we all have identities. Often, people identify themselves by their group, their people, their tribe, as it were. Everyone is labeled, and we even label ourselves. These labels have to do with gender, age, skin color, ethnicity, where we grew up, our socioeconomic status. We put other people and even ourselves in neat little boxes. But that isn’t liberating. It’s suffocating. Why should those accidental properties define us? I can’t control the fact that I was born in 1976 to a white family, that I have blue eyes, that I’m 6’2”, that I have this set of genes, and so on. All those things are important parts of who I am, but why should they define me?

And why should our desires determine who we are? What if our desires are harmful? What if we desire things that are contrary to God’s design for our lives? Our feelings shouldn’t determine who we are. What if our feelings are eating us up? What if our feelings consist of anxiety and depression?

If we build our identity on past successes, what happens if we fail in the present, or in the future? What then? And what happens when we think of ourselves and all we think about are our failures? How can we get an identity that isn’t destroyed by all the ways we’ve made a mess of our lives?

The same could be said of relationships. If we build our primary identity on our status as husband or wife, what happens if our spouse leaves us or dies? If our primary identity is mother or father, what happens when our kids don’t turn out the way we hoped the would be, or what happens if, God forbid, they die?

What happens if we never had the family we wanted, the career we wanted, the life we wanted? How can we have an identity that is positive?

I want to press this home a little further. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a wise, older friend. I was telling him about some recent difficulties that I’ve had. And I even told him that I’ve had a difficult time, emotionally speaking, over the last two years. I said that there was a point when I wanted to get out of my life. I wanted to stop being me. I wanted to hit the reset button, to start all over again, to be somewhere else, to be someone else. I remember telling friends that I felt like the opposite of King Midas. You may remember the story of King Midas: everything he touched turned to gold. I felt like every good gift that God had given me I turned to garbage.

Well, my friend said something very interesting. He said that being stuck with ourselves forever is hell. What he meant was that if we are stuck with ourselves and are not redeemed, not saved, not transformed, then that is hell. To be unchanged and without hope, and to be stuck with our old identities, is a kind of hell.

Some of the most profound thoughts about personal identity have come from the great theologian Augustine. In his famous book, the Confessions, he talks about how he became a Christian. He first pursued a life of pleasure and non-Christian philosophies. Reflecting back on that time, he writes, “I had become to myself a place of unhappiness in which I could not bear to be; but I could not escape from myself. Where should my heart flee to in escaping from my heart? Where should I go to escape myself? Where is there where I cannot pursue myself?”[4] Over sixteen hundred years before I had these thoughts, Augustine had them first. Human nature doesn’t change.

Don’t all of us wish we were different? Maybe we wish we had a different family, a different career, a different station in life, or even a different body. This is what all of us feel. I’ve felt it. Augustine felt it. I’m sure you have, too.

When Augustine became a Christian, he realized the depth of his sin. He confessed, “My sin consisted in this, that I sought pleasure, sublimity, and truth not in God but in his creatures, in myself and other created beings.”[5] We were made for God, to know him, love him, worship him, and serve him. But instead of treasuring the Creator, we treasure his creation. Instead of loving the Giver of all good gifts, we make idols of the gifts and ignore the Giver.

If this is the human condition, where can we go for help? Where can we find hope? How can we get new identities? How can we be changed?

The good news is that Jesus offers us new identities. He offers us transformation. He offers us change. And, in the end, he will bring about that change.

But first, we must realize that we have sinned. And we must own that fact.

Last week, I read a fascinating little book called The Riddle of Life. It was written by a Dutch missionary named Johan Bavinck over fifty years ago and it was recently translated into English. This book dares to ask the big questions of life, such as, “Who are we?” and “Why are we here?” In the course of the book, Bavinck describes the nature of sin. He says, “In our hearts we carry a goodly number of passions, and we are loath to reveal these most intimate thoughts to others, because we are well aware that they are not at all what they should be.”[6] Deep down, we know we have thoughts and desires that we should be ashamed of. And we all know we have done things we shouldn’t have. In short, if we’re honest, we know we’re not right.

But there comes a choice. Do we admit that we’re not right, or do we talk ourselves into thinking that we’re okay, or we’re not as bad as those people over there?

The proper response to an encounter with God is to own our sin, not to shift the blame. Bavinck addresses this issue, too. He writes,

As much as possible, we want to blame our shortcomings on others and on institutions outside us. We continually want to rid ourselves of all blame, while the only route to real salvation is that we fully own up to our guilt, admit that the emptiness dwells in our own soul. To put it differently: we are inclined to explain our suffering in such a way that we are victims of hostile powers outside ourselves. Our victim-obsession deprives us of the real incentive to essential conversion. Thus the first thing we have to do is to recognize that we are totally on the wrong track, that our lives completely lack a goal, that we ourselves are entirely to blame, and that the fundamental fault lies first of all within ourselves. Only then have we arrived at the heart of the matter.[7]

That quote is so very relevant for our world today. We cannot blame our sin on others, on outside forces or institutions. Yes, we may have been wronged by others. But we have wronged others, too. And we have to admit that we’ve not loved God or wanted to live life on his terms. Bavinck writes, “The real reason for denying sin is our constant effort to wrestle free from God and to resist his will.” In order to come back to God, we must first admit this and seek his forgiveness.

To know God is to know you’re a sinner. To know you’re a sinner is the first step to knowing the Savior. Jesus knows your sin. As God, he knows everything. Yet he still came and died for everyone who would simply trust him, who would run to him for refuge, who would come to him to find a new identity.

Jesus knew that Simon was a sinful man. Simon knew he had failed in life. He even failed at fishing. But what does Jesus say? “Let down your nets.” “But Jesus, we’ve fished all night and haven’t caught anything!” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, get away from me, I’m a sinful man. You don’t know the things I’ve done.” “Let down your nets.” “Jesus, I can’t be of any use to God. I’m such a loser.” “Let down your nets.”

Simon didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself. But there’s one thing he had. He had confidence in Jesus’ words. So, at Jesus’ word, he tried fishing again. And he found that Jesus was right. And after he confessed his sin to Jesus, he let down his nets. He left behind his life of fishing and became an evangelist, catching people not to die, not to be sold and enslaved, but so that they would have eternal life, and new identities. In fact, Simon was given a new identity and even a new name. In John’s Gospel, when Jesus first meets Simon, he says, “‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter)” (John 1:42). Cephas and Peter both mean “rock.”[8] In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter says that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16–18). Simon went from a humble, sinful fisherman to being Peter, the rock, one of the first leaders of the church. He went from sinner to saint and son of God.

This wasn’t because Simon cleaned himself up and atoned for his own sins. Jesus can call sinful people to himself and tell them that they will catch men alive, because Jesus allowed himself to be caught and killed. Though Jesus is the perfect Son of God, the God-man, the only person who has never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and an enemy of the state. He was tortured and crucified, killed in a brutal way. This was because sinful people hated him, but it was also God’s plan. God made a way for sinners to have their sins punished when Jesus died on the cross. And God made a way for sinners to be clothed in Jesus’ righteous status, receiving credit for his perfect life. This is a gift. We call this grace.

You can have this, too, if you trust Jesus’ word. Do you trust that God can forgive you? Do you trust that you can be regarded as perfect, as clean, as sinless? God promised this in the new covenant, the terms for his relationship with his people: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). Do you believe that is true? Do you believe that God can forgive you and cast aside all your failures? Do you believe that God is good enough that he would send his precious Son into the world to receive the penalty that you deserve? Do you believe that Jesus would lay down his own life to rescue yours?

The Bible also says that the world is still broken, marred by sin. But one day Jesus will return to settle all accounts. He will right all wrongs. His people will be raised from the dead and receive new bodies that can never die. Do you believe that could happen? Do you trust that it will?

You may think this is too good to be true. You may not understand it all. But you can still be like Peter and say, “I don’t think this can happen, but because you say so, Jesus, I’ll trust you. I’ll follow you.”

You may not have to change your job like Simon Peter did. Letting down your nets may be leaving behind some old, destructive habits. We need to put sins to death. But that doesn’t mean we have to leave our jobs or our families.[9] We’ll all have to leave some things behind. Some of us will have more dramatic conversions than others. But we all need to change and we all need to be willing to follow Jesus, wherever he leads us and whatever he tells us to do.

Now, if you are a Christian, I want to leave us with two quick thoughts. The first is that we have a tendency to forget that our real, primary identity is in Christ. We can look back at our failures, or we can look to other things to give our lives meaning and purpose. But being a Christian means being “in Christ.” Our old lives are gone, and our new life is found in Jesus. When I was feeling depressed, when I felt like I was being attacked by forces of evil, I had to remind myself of the gospel. We all have to do that.

The second thought has to do with evangelism. Why does Jesus call fishermen? I suppose it’s because fishing requires hard work and patience. Fishermen have to be willing to go out, work hard, and get little for their labors. There will be days when they don’t catch much. And I suppose that’s a lot like evangelism. All Christians should be witnesses to Jesus. All of us should tell others about who Jesus is and what he has done. We can tell others about how Jesus has changed us. This requires many attempts. Some attempts won’t produce fruit. But we should keep trying. We might think, “Jesus, I can’t believe that person would ever put their trust in you. Jesus, I’ve tried already. Jesus, that person is too far gone, too bad, too stubborn, too angry.” But, still, we have to be like Peter, “At your word, I’ll try again.”

The only true good news that the world has ever received is that Jesus is the true King, the righteous ruler who comes to rescue his people. He lived the perfect life that we don’t life. He died a death in place of his people so that their sins are punished. He offers new life, forgiveness of sins, and new identities to those who trust in him. He promises that one day he will fix all that is wrong. There is no better offer out there. Please, take Jesus’ offer. Let down your nets and follow him.

Notes

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream . . .” This speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. The text of the speech is available at https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 153. Edwards cites B. Crisler, “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 39 (1976): 137.
  4. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 60.
  5. Ibid., 30.
  6. J. N. Bavinck, The Riddle of Life, trans. Bert Hielema (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 66.
  7. Ibid., 81.
  8. Cephas is based on the Aramaic for rock and Peter is based on the Greek word for rock.
  9. See 1 Corinthians 7:17–24.

 

Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 14, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

Have you ever seen a commercial on television and realized that you had a problem that you never knew you had? A lot of products are designed to solve a particular problem that we have. When you watch commercials, they usually illustrate that problem, and then they give us great news: there’s a product that can fix your problem. Sometimes the problems aren’t really big. Do you remember those Ronco products that were sold on TV? Ron Popeil hawked all kinds of products on TV. You may remember the rotisserie machine that could cook two chickens at once. He also sold the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Until you saw this product, you may not have realized how difficult it is to scramble eggs with a whisk. But with the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler, you simply place a whole egg on the device, a needle sticks inside the egg, and the electronic device scrambles the egg’s yolk and white inside the shell. No more whisks needed!

Remember the Clapper? Before you saw that product advertised on TV, you probably didn’t think about how much time you spent turning lights off and on. But now, with the Clapper, you just clap to do the job. Just think what you can do with all of that time saved!

On a more serious note, sometimes we don’t realize we have a health problem. Perhaps we’re feeling fine, but we happen to have our annual physical and the blood tests reveal that our cholesterol or our blood pressure is too high. Perhaps something else is going on with our blood sugar levels or our white blood cell count. There may be some proteins in our blood that could be markers of a tumor. We didn’t think we had a problem, but now the doctor says we do.

The point is that in order to make changes, in order to find a solution, we first have to know we have a problem. In order to be healed, we need to know what disease we have. We first have to be confronted with the truth in order to be made well.

That can be true of all kinds of things in life. If we want to get better, we have to be confronted with the truth. I used to be a professor of music. Most of the time, I taught voice lessons. Most of the students accepted the fact that it was my job to get them to sing better. But I remember there was one student who seemed to be upset that I didn’t simply let him sing and then say to him how great of a singer he was. I wanted him to improve, so I challenged him. His voice was very soft, and to be an effective singer, you have to be able to project your voice. You need a certain level of volume in order to have a rich, resonant, pleasing voice. So, I corrected him and taught him some new techniques. I usually had good student evaluation, but he gave me a negative one. (Evaluations were anonymous, but I could identify his evaluation by the comments he made.)

In order to change, to improve, to be made well, we need to know what our problem is. And we need to be confronted with the truth. This is never easy. And, to quote that line Jack Nicholson delivers in “A Few Good Men,” there are many people who “can’t handle the truth.”

That’s certainly true when it comes to Jesus. In order to know that we need Jesus, we first need to know that we have a problem that only he can solve. That means that we will need to hear some hard truths. Some people will respond rightly to those hard truths. Others “can’t handle the truth,” and they will be dismissive.

We see this today in today’s passage, Luke 3:1–20. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we were told the story of how a special child was born to two elderly parents who were previously unable to have children. This special child was named John. His father, Zechariah, was told that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:16–17).[1]

When John was born, Zechariah said this to him,

76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77  to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78  because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76–79).

John’s job would be to go prepare the way for the Lord Jesus, who was his relative and was born a few months after John. John’s role was to prepare the people for the coming of their King and Savior. He would let them know that the salvation of God has come.

Now, we jump ahead three decades later. Jesus hasn’t begun his ministry yet, but John was ministering in the wilderness near the Jordan River. Let’s first read verses 1–6:

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Once again, Luke gives us some historical context. He tells us that this is the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (42 BC–37 AD). Tiberius was the emperor of Rome, who followed Augustus, his stepfather. He started to reign alongside Augustus in AD 12 and then he became the sole emperor in AD 14. Depending on how the years were counted, this could be as early as AD 26 and as late as AD 29. I think it’s possible that it’s now AD 28, particularly if Jesus died in AD 30. But some think he died in AD 33, and then the year 29 might make sense. At any rate, this is during Tiberius’s reign.

It’s also when Pontius Pilate was the governor, or prefect, of Judea. He held that position from AD 26 to 36. He was an administrative officer of the Roman Empire whose job it was to collect taxes and keep the peace.

Three other political leaders are mentioned: Herod Antipas (ruled 4 BC–AD 39), his half-brother, Philip (ruled 4 BC–AD 34), and Lysanias (dates unknown). This Herod is not Herod the Great, but his son. He was the one who ruled over Galilee, the region where Jesus ministered. He was also famous for divorcing his wife and marrying the wife of his half-brother, Herod Philip (not be confused with Herod the Tetrarch). John the Baptist spoke out against that marriage and that led to his death. Philip and Lysanias are not as important, but they were both “tetrarchs,” which means they were each a ruler of a fourth of Herod the Great’s kingdom.

In addition to the political rulers, there are the religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high priest of the time (he held that position from AD 18–36). His father-in-law, Annas, had been high priest earlier (AD 6–15). Though he was no longer officially the high priest, it’s clear that he still had a lot of power (John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6).

I think Luke tells us who these powerful men were in order to tell us when this event occurred. But he also tells us about these men because he contrasts John the Baptist with them. These men had political and religious power. In fact, four of them (Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, and Caiaphas) will play a role in Jesus’ death. Yet John the Baptist didn’t have any earthly power. But what John had was more important: The word of God. John is presented as a prophet.[2] He delivers a message from God in the wilderness along the Jordan River. He is not in the palaces of Rome, Jerusalem, or Caesarea Philippi. He’s not in the temple in Jerusalem. But his job is more important than Caesar’s or the high priest’s. His job was to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Nothing could get in the way of what God was about to do. Not the lowest valley, the highest mountain, the most crooked of roads, or the roughest patch of terrain. No, all flesh will see the salvation of God.

To prepare people for the coming of the Lord, John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism is the act of being immersed in water. In this case, it was the Jordan River. Repentance is a turning to God, a turning away from sin, a changing of mind and heart and behavior. What John was saying was that it was necessary to be washed from the uncleanness of sin and to turn to God in faith and to turn way from sin and idols.

The idea of needing to be washed is found in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 1:16–17, God says to Israel,

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;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

The idea of being washed in the Jordan River also reminds me of a story from the Old Testament. A Gentile, named Naaman, was the commander of the Syrian army. He also happened to be a leper. He was told that the prophet Elisha could heal him. When he came to Elisha, Elisha told him to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River and he would be clean. Naaman was doubtful at first, but he did as he was told, and he was healed of his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1–14).

The idea is that the Israelites were unclean. They needed to be clean in order to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. Like everyone else, they had sinned against God. In order to be right with God, they needed to repent and be forgiven. Our great problem, our great disease is the separation that exists between God and people. That separation is responsible for all that is wrong with the world. Because of that separation, we have inner turmoil. We don’t feel at ease, we don’t feel peace, we don’t truly feel home. We can get depressed and lonely. Because of that separation, we fight. We covet and steal. We quarrel. Nations go to war. Because of that separation, God put a curse on the earth. There are earthquakes and floods, hurricanes and famines. And because of this separation, we get diseases like leprosy and leukemia, and we die. We’re separated from God because we don’t live according to our design. God made us to know him, love him, and worship him. But we don’t pursue God, we don’t love him as we should, and we don’t worship him. We tend to make ourselves or other created things the objects of our worship, even if we don’t call it “worship” or think of it as worship. This disease of sin affects all flesh, and it affected Israel just as much as it affected Gentiles.

Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3–5, identifying John as the voice in the wilderness. Another passage in Isaiah talks about preparing the way. Those who are lowly and contrite will be healed, but those who continue in their wickedness will not experience healing or peace. This is what Isaiah 57:14–21 says:

14  And it shall be said,
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
15  For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
16  For I will not contend forever,
nor will I always be angry;
for the spirit would grow faint before me,
and the breath of life that I made.
17  Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry,
I struck him; I hid my face and was angry,
but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart.
18  I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;
I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners,
19  creating the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord,
“and I will heal him.
20  But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot be quiet,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
21  There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”

John’s message was the same. Healing would come to those who sought it. But there are those, the wicked, who will never seek God, and they will not experience peace.

Let’s continue in this passage to learn more about John’s message. Let’s read verses 7–9:

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John calls the crowds a “brood of vipers!” In Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told that he directed that statement to two sects of Jewish religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 3:7). “Brood of vipers” more or less means, “sons of the serpent,” or, “sons of the devil.” The imagery goes back to Genesis 3, when Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempts and Adam and Eve. John asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He probably implies that they can’t slither out of God’s righteous judgment. The only way for them to avoid God’s wrath is to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” In other words, if their lives show that they have turned to God, then they can avoid his wrath. But they shouldn’t think they will be spared God’s judgment just because they’re Jews. They can’t take pride in their heritage and say that they are sons of Abraham. The true sons of Abraham are people of faith (Gal. 3:7, 9), people who are united to Jesus (Gal. 3:29) by faith. If all the Jews lacked faith and didn’t repent of their sins, then God could take stones and make them sons of Abraham. People of faith produce good fruit and will be spared, and people who lack faith bear bad fruit and will be judged.

This is similar to what happens in the Gospel of John when Jesus confronts Jewish religious leaders. He says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). They say that they are Abraham’s sons and have never been slaves. How can they be made free? Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. . . . I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you” (John 8:34, 37). When they insist that they are Abraham’s children, Jesus says that if they were Abraham’s children, they would be doing the works of Abraham. I think he means they would be acting out of faith, and if they truly loved God the Father, they would love God the Son, Jesus. But they don’t understand Jesus, because they cannot bear to hear what he says (John 8:39–43). Then Jesus brings out the big guns and says, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

In other words, Jesus calls the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers.” They weren’t sons of Abraham and sons of God. No, they were sons of the devil. This shows us that God’s people are not of one ethnicity. It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish or Gentile. People aren’t right with God because they have some position or power. They’re not right with God because they happened to go through the religious motions. No, they are right with God if they have been transformed, if God has changed them. As the apostle Paul says, “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). You can’t boast in following all the religious rules, or flouting all the religious rules. What matters is being transformed by God, born of the Holy Spirit.

I think it’s no accident that John is in the wilderness and at the Jordan River. Remember that when God redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brought them into the wilderness. And to enter into the Promised Land of Canaan, they had to cross the Jordan River. Though they entered into that land, they did not find rest for their souls (Heb. 3:1–4:10). Because the Israelites were generally unfaithful to God, God punished them and drove them out of that land. But when the reentered it, they still hadn’t fixed their problem of sin. The answer wasn’t entering into that land. The answer was a transformation. And that’s why John is here, in the wilderness, at the Jordan River. He’s saying, “If you want to enter the true Promised Land, the true paradise with God, you have to go through the Jordan. You have to be washed of your sin. You have to change. You must turn from you sin and turn back to God. You must trust him and you must live like it.”

Some people who heard John’s message were convicted. They realized that they had a problem and they wanted to know what they could do to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Let’s read verses 10–14:

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

When people ask John, “What should we do?” John gives them a pretty simple answer: start living rightly. The implication is they haven’t been living this way. They’re supposed to share their clothing. If you see someone who lacks the basic necessities of life, share with that person. Stop taking things that aren’t yours. Tax collectors in that time and place were known for taking more than they should. Apparently, soldiers did the same thing. John tells the crowd to live rightly, to be generous and honest.

Now, this doesn’t mean that this makes a person right with God. We have to remember that John’s message was not the full gospel. He was preparing people for Jesus. What he was doing was highlighting their sin and their need for salvation. He was telling them to start to pay attention to their dealings with other people, to be aware of their own unrighteousness and to start thinking more about righteousness.

Jesus will say that God freely forgives those who turn to him in faith. But Jesus will also stress the importance of sacrificial giving. Later in the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see examples of people giving generously. Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan is a story of a man who gives generously to someone in need. We’ll also see a story of a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who repents (Luke 19:1–10). And we’ll meet an honorable solider, a centurion (Luke 7:1–10). In this passage, Luke is introducing some important themes that will be developed later.

John the Baptist’s preaching pointed forward to the one who can make sinful people righteous. Let’s read verses 15–17:

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John’s preaching was so powerful that some people wondered if he was the Christ, or Messiah, the long-awaited deliverer that the Old Testament promised would come. He clearly says no. He says that while his baptism was with water, there was one who is mightier than he. This one, Jesus, will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Water in and of itself does nothing to change a person. Baptism in water is just a sign. But the Holy Spirit is the third Person of the triune God. After Jesus dies, is resurrected from the grave, and ascends into heaven, he will pour out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). The Holy Spirit is the one who ultimately transforms people. Fire can also change. Fire can destroy, but fire can also purify. For some, fire will mean judgment. Those who reject Jesus are the trees who produce bad fruit, and they will be thrown into the fire. But those who trust in Jesus will be purified. God uses the fire of trials to purify his people (Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:2–3). He uses challenges in our lives to burn off the things that hinder our growth, to show us what is important and enduring and what won’t last. We should focus on the things that matter most, the things that are eternal.

Jesus is like a farmer who separates the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is the husk, which isn’t used for food and so is discarded. A farmer would use a winnowing fork to toss the grain in the air. The lighter chaff would be carried off in the wind and the heavier wheat would fall back to the threshing floor. The chaff would later be burned, while the wheat is stored in the barn. This is just a picture of judgment day. When Jesus returns, when the end of history as we know it comes, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. John preached this, but so did Jesus and his apostles. The idea that our lives will be evaluated means that our lives have meaning. If there is no evaluation, there simply is no meaning. But the fact that we will be judged should cause us to think more carefully about our lives. If all our actions, our words, and even our thoughts are used as evidence in the cosmic trial that is judgment day, could we stand in the right before God? Would we be found guilty or innocent? John is pressing the need that people have for salvation. He is preparing people for the only Savior.

At the end of this passage, Luke gives us a summary statement of John’s preaching. But Luke also tells us that John’s preaching got him into trouble. Let’s read verses 18–20:

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

John preached “good news” to people. His message relates to the good news that the prophet Isaiah promised would come. Isaiah promised that God would come and gather his people (Isa. 40:9–11). He promised that God would bring peace (Isa. 52:7; the peace comes from the “Suffering Servant” of Isa. 52:13–53:12). God’s anointed one would bring good news to the spiritually poor, the ones enslaved to sin (Isa. 61:1). Isaiah promises forgiveness, restoration, and even a recreation of the world (Isa. 65:17).

But not everyone thought John’s preaching was good news. Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife in order to marry the wife of his half-brother, didn’t like John’s preaching, and he locked him up. John had told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matt. 14:4). And so John was imprisoned and later he was killed (see Matt. 14:1–12). John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who told people to stop worshiping idols, false gods, and to turn back to the true God. He spoke truth to power. In Elijah’s day, the power was King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had to run for his life. John also spoke truth to power, but for this he was killed.

Hundreds of millions of people and perhaps billions of people have heard about John the Baptist. How many of us know much about Tiberius or Philip the Tetrarch? We only know Pontius Pilate because he was involved in the crucifixion. These men are mere footnotes in the Bible. But John is a hero. That is because John the Baptist had real power. God’s hand was upon him, and he had the power of God’s word. Though his actions cost him his life, he knew that he could never lose eternal life in the true Promised Land of a renewed and restored creation. His glory far exceeds that of the emperor.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, I want to focus on just a few points.

One, true power is found in God’s word. God’s word has the power to transform lives. When the Holy Spirit applies his word to the hearts of sinful people, those people turn to God. They are changed. The word of God has changed the world more than any emperor has. People often put so much hope in politics. They pour so much of their time, money, and emotions into political parties. But politics does not have the power of God. It’s important, but it’s less important than God’s word.

John the Baptist’s preaching challenged not only political powers, but also religious powers. His preaching—and Jesus’ preaching—challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. They challenged the high priests. Some people put their hope in their priests, or in religious institutions. Formalized religion is not necessarily bad, but if it is opposed to the word of God, it is. When churches do things that aren’t biblical, they need to be reformed. If they don’t change according to God’s word, they, too, will be thrown into the fire, which will consume all their unbiblical traditions.

Two, God’s word tells us that our problem is our rebellion against God. Our main problem is not a lack of education or money. Our main problem isn’t political. Our main problem isn’t even racism or sexism. Our main problem is that we do not live for God the way that we should. And God has every right to condemn us. John’s preaching highlighted that fact.

Three, John’s job was also to point to the solution to our problem. Our problem is so great that we cannot fix it ourselves. We cannot atone for our own sin. That is why God sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus is the only perfectly righteous person who has ever lived. He has always loved God the Father the way that God should be loved. He has always obeyed God the Father the way that God should be obeyed. He loves people the way that people should be loved. And though he never sinned, he was treated like a criminal and executed on an instrument of torture, the cross. Yet this was God’s plan. On the cross, Jesus experienced God’s righteous, holy wrath. God hates sin, and Jesus was regarded as sin. He was crushed, because sin deserves to be destroyed. He experienced hell on earth, because sinners deserve to experience condemnation. And the great news is that anyone who turns to Jesus in faith and repents of their sins can be forgiven of all their sin. Jesus has already paid the penalty that our crimes against God deserve.

Four, that brings us to what a right response to Jesus looks like. We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he did. But faith isn’t just head knowledge. Faith leads to action. Repentance is the changing of one’s whole life. If a right response is a coin, faith is on one side, and repentance is on the other. You can’t separate the two. Jesus and his apostles called people to put their faith in Jesus, but they also called them to repentance (Luke 5:32; 13:1–5; 15; 17:1–4; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). If you haven’t yet turned to Jesus, you can turn to him now. It’s not too late. You can put your trust in him. You can start living a different way. I would love to talk to you more about that. But keep in mind that following Jesus is a real change. It’s one we need to make in order to be right with God and avoid judgment.

Five, repentance isn’t just what we do when we first come to Jesus. The whole Christian life is a continual repentance, a continual reformation according to the word of God. I talked a lot about Martin Luther last fall. In his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which was a protest against the Catholic Church’s abuse of the sale of indulgences, he began with this thesis: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to repentance.”[3] Many of us have put our faith in Jesus. How many of us are repenting even now?

Finally, I want to close with this thought: John the Baptist said that God could raise up stones to be Abraham’s children. And God has done that. In the apostle Peter’s first letter, he says that Jesus is “a living stone,” the “cornerstone” upon which the church is built (1 Pet. 2:4, 7). And Christians are “like living stones” who are “built up as a spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). We were once spiritually dead, but we have been made alive, adopted as God’s children, and incorporated into God’s temple, the church. Peter says,

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).

Praise God that he can raise up stones to be alive, to be his own possession, to walk in his light, and to receive his mercy. And let us continually turn from sin to God, living lives that are pleasing to him.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. It was typical for Old Testament prophets to be identified by the names of their fathers, the kings who reigned when they prophesied, and the fact that the “word of the Lord” came to them: Jer. 1:1–2; 11:18–20; 13:3; Isa. 38:4; Hos. 1:1.
  3. Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017), 115.

 

How Can We Know Jesus?

Brian Watson preached this message on December 14, 2014. How can we know the real Jesus? To know who Jesus was (and is) and what he did, we have to look at the evidence. Pastor Brian examines the evidence for Jesus in this sermon.

How Can We Know Jesus?

This sermon was preached on December 14, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance. The text of the written sermon also appears below.

Well, it’s Christmas time. And that means we are going to hear a lot about Jesus. It seems that every year, someone makes a new claim about him. Every year, about this time, a new article in Time magazine or in National Geographic or a television program on the History channel or the Smithsonian Channel tells us about the “real Jesus.” This year, a new book called The Lost Gospel claims that a “lost” text states that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.[1] Never mind that this text was written in the sixth century—five hundred years after Jesus died—and that it doesn’t actually have the names of Jesus and Mary in it, but refers to Joseph and Aseneth (mentioned in Gen. 41:45), and that it wasn’t actually lost and that it isn’t actually a gospel. No, those are just inconvenient little details. Really, now we’ve found the real Jesus. You just have to learn how to decode the text.[2]

This claim is nothing new. In 2012, Karen King, a professor at Harvard, claimed that she found a document that referred to Jesus’ wife. It turns out this document dates to the eighth century. It barely amounts to anything, given that it’s a scrap that’s three inches wide, with some broken text that apparently has Jesus saying, “My wife . . .”[3] Could he be referring to the church, the bride of Christ? Is this another fabrication about Jesus? Or was he really married? How can we know?

Last year, the news was not that Jesus was married, but that he was only a Jewish revolutionary, certainly not God, who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire, or so Reza Aslan told us in his book, Zealot.[4] According to Aslan, the New Testament of the Bible does not consist of historically reliable documents. He simply asserts, “The New Testament is not a historical document.”[5] In his book, he claims that “the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions.”[6] Many others make similar claims. Are they right?

Jesus is surely the most written-about figure in history. And since Jesus is so compelling, and such a perennial subject of interest, it’s no surprise that everyone tries to get Jesus on their team. For example, New Age spiritual teachers like to write about Jesus, reducing him to—you guessed it—a New Age spiritual teacher.[7] And many of the claims about Jesus are irreconcilable—they are completely different. It seems that everyone wants a Jesus who is just like them, who reflects their interests and values, who champions their causes. But perhaps the real Jesus is someone who is so unlike us that we have to stop and take notice. Perhaps Jesus is someone we could never make up, someone who demands our attention, and even our worship.

Today, I begin a sermon series called, “Who Is Jesus?” My goal is to try to show what the Bible teaches about Jesus, why it is historically accurate, and why we should believe it. Some of us believe that the message of Jesus we find in the Bible is true. Some of us may not. Some of us may want to believe it, but have doubts. Wherever you stand on this issue today, I want you to consider what the Bible says and, before rejecting it, consider whether it’s true. You can’t reject that which you don’t know. That’s like a child saying, “I don’t like broccoli,” when he’s never tasted it. In the case of Jesus, you have to look at the actual evidence before deciding what you believe and why you believe it. Make a decision about Jesus, yes, but don’t make a poorly-informed, ignorant decision.

So, the question today is: How can we know Jesus? The Christian claim is that Jesus was born around 5 B.C. and died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[8] That means Jesus lived about two thousand years ago. So, in order to know who Jesus is, we have to consider how we can know anything from two thousand years ago.

In order to understand ancient history, we have to keep a few things in mind, things that should be very obvious. The first thing we need to consider is that we don’t have direct access to the past. We’re like detectives who come upon a crime scene. We can’t see what happened directly, but we can do our best to make sense of all the clues that we see around us.[9]

The second thing we need to keep in mind is that the time of Jesus was long before the time of photographs and videos. It was before the time of the Internet, typewriters, electricity, and even the movable-type printing press, which was developed in the fifteen century. It was a time before television and radio and anything that resembles the modern newspaper.

If you want to know what happened in ancient history, you have to look at two things: artifacts and writings.[10] Artifacts are the type of things that archaeologists typically deal with: the lost Ark, the Holy Grail, Nazis–you know, Indiana Jones-type stuff. To be serious, archaeologists often deal with the remains of ancient cities and towns. They find buildings, pottery, coins, inscriptions, and so forth. Another type of evidence is writing. We can look at histories and letters to figure out what happened in earlier times.

With Jesus, we don’t have much in the way of artifacts. We don’t have his personal items, or the cross he was crucified on, or the tomb he was buried in. We shouldn’t expect to find his possessions, because he was an itinerant teacher without his own home. Also, early Christians didn’t have the means—the power or the money—to secure the cross or the tomb or other objects that might be physical proof of Jesus’ life and deeds.[11] In fact, it seems like they weren’t interested in that sort of thing at all. Early Christians were much more interested in telling others what they had witnessed. Therefore, we must turn to writings to learn more the real Jesus.

Let’s consider some aspects of ancient writing. As I said, this was before computers, typewriters, and the printing press. Everything that was written had to be written by hand, and if you wanted copies, well, those had to be written by hand, too. And it’s not like you could go to Staples and by a ream of paper and some pens. People wrote on a primitive form of paper called papyrus, which was made from slices of reeds, which were cross-hatched and dried. Or they wrote on leather scrolls. Either way, writing materials were scarce and expensive. It was usually better for people to spread news orally—by memorizing it and speaking it to others.

Now, there are some basic facts of ancient writing that we must deal with. One, a lot of ancient history is lost to the sands of time. Papyrus documents were fragile and could deteriorate. Things happen over time that can destroy writings: fires, floods, wars, sunlight, humidity. Two, there was often a delay between historical events and the writing of history. This is odd for us because events that happen now are broadcast almost instantly over the Internet and on cable news stations. But that didn’t happen in the ancient world because it took so long to write and copy writings. Again, it was faster and more efficient to speak news than write it. Three, ancient historians didn’t tend to write history the way it’s written now. They were accurate, but they weren’t as concerned about being as precise as historians are today. They tended to form and shape their histories to emphasize certain themes. They wanted to get the facts right, but it was more important to capture the essence of an historical figure or event than to be concerned with precise numbers.

Let me illustrate those first two points. A lot of ancient historical documents may be lost, so we have relatively few in number. Consider this: the Roman Emperor for most of Jesus’ life, the one who reigned when Jesus died, was Tiberius (A.D. 14–37). He was the most powerful man in the world at that time. He reigned for over twenty years. And there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death.[12] By comparison, the number of sources we have regarding Jesus is pretty stunning. We may wish we had more sources, but what we have is a lot, and we have to examine the evidence we have, not the evidence we don’t.

The second point I made regarding ancient history is that there is normally a gap in time between events in the past and historical writings that tell us about them. That’s true whether the history is about Caesars or Christ. It’s typical for a few decades to elapse before an event is captured in writing. That is true for Roman historians like Suetonius and Tacitus, and it’s true for the writers of the New Testament. The difference is that many of the writers of the New Testament were eyewitnesses to the events they write about. And if they weren’t eyewitnesses, they had access to eyewitnesses.

Now, as we turn to writings about Jesus, we can see that there are a few different categories of writings. There are early writings and late writings, and there are non-Christian writings and Christian ones. Generally, the earlier the writing, the more historically accurate it is considered. There are many later writings concerning, Jesus, but I don’t think it’s hard to see that these writings—like the scrap of papyrus about Jesus’ alleged wife—aren’t trustworthy documents. You don’t want to put much stock in them, if you put any stock in them at all. It’s best to focus on the earlier writings about Jesus, the ones that occurred within the first century or so.

First, let’s take a quick look at the early non-Christian mentions of Jesus. I want to do this for two reasons: One, to show that we have records of Jesus outside of the Bible. This is important because some people claim that Jesus didn’t even exist, which in light of all the evidence is simply absurd.[13] Two, what we see in these documents actually corroborates certain elements of the Christian claims regarding Jesus. So let’s look at them.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c.100), who lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[14] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some people.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, it seems that some Christians added to this text, in order to create a stronger witness for Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[15]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.[16]

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[17] We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that Suetonius thought that Christ was a person causing a problem in Rome. What happened was that early Christians were preaching Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people. We do know that Suetonius referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[18]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[19]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship:

They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.[20]

This passage, written around A.D. 111, shows that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.”

We could also mention Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, who makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “Wise King.”[21] And the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, apparently refers to Jesus when it says: “It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”[22] That is a bit of polemical writing by Jews who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. They claimed he tried to lead Israel astray. That writing comes later, perhaps from the fifth century. But the charges made against Jesus are captured by the second century Christian writer, Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100–c.165), in his Dialogues with Trypho: “For they dared to call Him a magician, and a deceiver of the people.”[23] The Talmud does not deny that Jesus performed miracles and that he was “hung” on a cross at the time of Passover—details presented also in the Bible.

That’s really all that non-Christians wrote about Jesus in the first hundred years after his life. None of those details deny what we read in the New Testament. In fact, these documents tell us that Jesus was known for doing miraculous works, that he had a following, that he died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and that his followers continued to meet and worship him. Reza Aslan claims that the only two facts we can know about Jesus is that he had a following and was put to death by the Romans.[24] But we’ve already seen that Aslan is wrong.

However, it’s clear that these non-Christian sources give us a limited amount of information. To learn more about Jesus, we have to turn to the Bible.

Over the next few months, we’re going to spend a lot of time in the New Testament, particularly in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A lot of claims are made against the New Testament. Some people claim these are not historically reliable documents. Some claim they were written too late in time to capture accurately what Jesus did and said. Others claim that the early church edited out of the Bible certain other Gospels that told different stories about Jesus. These claims are simply false. Here are some reasons why we can trust the New Testament.

The New Testament writers claimed to write historical documents. For the sake of time, I’ll use just one example. We heard how the Gospel of Luke begins. It’s worth reading that again. Here is Luke 1:1–4:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.[25]

The writer states a few things. He says that others have written accounts of Jesus’ life, the subject of the book he is writing. These accounts were passed down from eyewitnesses to others, such as the writer, who himself was not an eyewitness. He claims that he investigated everything and has now created an “orderly account” for someone named Theophilus.

Luke is the longest book in the New Testament, and it has a sequel, the book of Acts. We know this because Acts is also addressed to Theophilus, and it begins with a mention of a previous book, also about Jesus (Acts 1:1–2). Despite what some skeptics say, we are certain that Luke, a physician and an associate of the apostle Paul (see Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24), wrote these books. Why? Even though the name “Luke” isn’t mentioned in the body of the text, his name has been attached to these documents from the beginning of Christian history. The earliest copy of this Gospel that we have has the title “according to Luke” attached to it.[26] Also, the earliest Christians writing after the Bible was written, the so-called “church fathers,” indicated that these books were written by Luke.[27] So, we have confidence that we know who the author is.

We also know that Luke used very elegant Greek. This is the writing of a well-educated person.[28]

We also know that Luke was accurate. The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[29] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[30]

The Gospels are not the stuff of legend. They are very restrained, even when they are describing very amazing events. Contrast that with other books, written in the late second century, that are not in the Bible. For example, in the Gospel of Peter (which wasn’t written by Peter, who had died a hundred years or so earlier!), at the resurrection, two men and Jesus come out of the tomb, followed by a cross. The heads of two men reach up to heaven, and the head of Jesus reaches above the heavens. And then, of course, the cross speaks![31] But the real Gospels aren’t like that at all.

That leads me to another point: The Gospels were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let’s stay with the example of Luke. Some skeptics assume Luke was written at the end of the first century, perhaps fifty to seventy years after Jesus’ death.[32] They assume that because in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, which happened in A.D. 70. Some people assume that is impossible, so they believe that Luke was writing “prophecy” after the fact.[33] But that should be a warning against relying on our presuppositions, the things we assume to be true yet are not proven. Why should we rule out evidence of prophecy of the future and miracles?

The best evidence for the date of Luke is actually two-fold. First, in 1 Timothy, Paul seems to quote Luke 10:7 and call is “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18). Of course, some skeptics don’t think Paul wrote 1 Timothy; they claim it was written later. But all the evidence we have says that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, and Paul died in Rome as a martyr, sometime between 64 and 67. So, Luke had to be written earlier. Second, Luke’s second volume, Acts, ends rather abruptly with Paul a prisoner in Rome. We know that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome. The first time was between 60 and 62. Later, he was arrested again and was beheaded. The apostle Peter also died in Rome around the same time. There was also a major fire in Rome in 64, which lead to increased persecution of Christians. And the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70. Why aren’t any of these events recorded in Acts if Luke wrote after them? The best answer is that Luke wrote before they happened.[34] So Luke probably wrote Acts around 62. He wrote Luke sometime earlier. And virtually every scholar agrees that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources, which means Mark was written even earlier.

You may wonder why we have trouble dating books in the ancient world. The problem is that they weren’t time stamped or dated the way documents are now. As I said earlier, historians at that time didn’t write history the way we do now. That doesn’t mean they weren’t accurate, however.

Here’s another reason why we should trust the New Testament. We have more manuscripts and older manuscripts of the New Testament than any other document from that time. It is the best-attested document of the ancient world, by far. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[35]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era. The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[36] Yet no one doubts that these writings are historically reliable, and they certainly don’t doubt that the Peloponnesian War or the Gallic War actually happened.

There are many other reasons to trust the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. I don’t have time to explain them all, but if you visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and go to the “Media” tab, you can read some articles I have written about the trustworthiness of the New Testament and alleged errors or contradictions in the Bible. You can also go to the “Sermons” page and read this manuscript, which has more information in it than I have time to present right now. However, here are two quick reasons: The New Testament contains too many things—some of which are potentially embarrassing—that no one would make up if they were fabricating a story. Also, the New Testament was written by several people over a fifty-year span, from different places and to different places. That means it wasn’t the product of some conspiring person or group of people. The early church didn’t have power or the ability to control their message.

But I do want to address one last issue. There’s been a lot of talk regarding other, so-called “lost gospels” that are not in the Bible. The idea is that somehow these gospels were hidden by the Church, because they were controversial. Dan Brown popularized his idea in his novel, The Da Vinci Code. One of his characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, makes this extraordinary claim: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.” Furthermore, he states, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”[37] This is wrong on both counts. There are fewer than thirty “gospels,” or written accounts of Jesus. And Constantine certainly did not determine the content of the Bible. The Council of Nicaea in 325 did not determine which books are in the Bible. That is simply bad history.

The only accounts of Jesus’ life that were written in the first century are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the Gospels of the Bible. Other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Peter were written at the end of the second century, over a hundred years after Jesus’ death. They weren’t written by Thomas, Judas, and Peter, who were already dead. They are clearly false.[38] I already mentioned the talking cross of the Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus. Here’s the last one: “Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: ‘Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Anyone who has read the New Testament knows how ridiculous that statement is. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas as a hero. This wasn’t a “lost gospel.” In 180 Irenaeus dismissed it as a fictitious history.[39] After the Gospel of Judas was published in English translation in 2006, Adam Gopnik wrote a review of it in The New Yorker. He said that these gospels “no more challenge the basis of the Church’s faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.”[40]

These claims that make the news and circulate on the Internet should serve as a warning. Anyone can assert something. Anyone can make a truth claim. Usually, the more scandalous the claim, the more attention it receives. But truth claims need to be backed by evidence, and the claims that Jesus is a myth, or that these false gospels were hidden by the Church, or that people added legendary material to the Bible simply aren’t true. If you follow the evidence, you’ll find that there are excellent reasons to believe the Gospels are historical documents.

So now the question is, are you willing to read those Gospels and consider what they say? As we continue through this series on Jesus, we’ll examine key aspects of Jesus’ life and works. We won’t cover every single thing Jesus is recorded as saying and doing, but we’ll consider the key claims of Christianity and wonder if they can be true. If you are a Christian here today, please know that I want you to be confident that you can trust what the Bible says about Jesus. I want you to understand better who Jesus is. I want you to understand why he matters. If you are not a Christian, if you haven’t put your faith in Jesus yet, I want you to consider that the evidence for the Jesus of Christianity is far greater than you may have assumed. I want you to be confident that you can know who Jesus is. All I ask is that you take time to learn who he is. Please keep coming to this church throughout this series so you can learn more.

Often, the problem is not with the evidence, with the facts and how they have been traditionally interpreted. Often, the problem is with ourselves and our desires. We don’t think things are true because we simply don’t want them to be true. If you can’t believe that the Jesus of the Bible is true, examine yourself to see if there’s anything that keeps you from believing. Do you simply not want Jesus to be who the Bible says he is, the King and Lord of the universe? Perhaps you don’t want such an authority over your life. Or perhaps you don’t think there’s a God or an afterlife: when you die, you die, and that’s it. But how do you know? If you’re skeptical of the Bible, perhaps you should also be skeptical of your skepticism. When it comes to Jesus, there’s simply too much at stake. Given the claims of Christianity—that our eternal destiny lies in the hands of Jesus—we must realize that we shouldn’t come to the question of Jesus lightly. Take time. Weigh the evidence. Think it through.

Notes

  1. Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (New York: Pegasus, 2014).
  2. Robert Cargill, “Review of ‘The Lost Gospel’ by Jacobovici and Wilson,” November 10, 2014, http://robertcargill.com/2014/11/10/review-of-the-lost-gospel-by-jacobovici-and-wilson/ (accessed December 11, 2014). See also the other articles about Jacobovici on Cargill’s website.
  3. The whole text can be read in Emma Green, “The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Is Real: What Now,” The Atlantic, April 10, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife-is-real-what-now/360487/ (accessed December 11, 2014). Other articles about this discovery include: Joel Bade and Candida Moss, “The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife,” The Atlantic, November 17, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-curious-case-of-jesuss-wife/382227/ (accessed December 11, 2014); Charlotte Allen, “She’s Back: Jesus’ Wife—Again,” The Weekly Standard, December 8, 2014, Vo. 20, no. 13, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/she-s-back_820226.html, (accessed December 11, 2014).
  4. Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013).
  5. Belinda Luscombe, “10 Questions for Reza Aslan,” Time, August 5, 2013, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2148151,00.html (accessed December 11, 2014).
  6. Aslan, Zealot, xix. For a devastating critique of Aslan, see Allan Nadler, “What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot,” Jewish Review of Books, August 11, 2013, http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/449/reza-aslan-what-jesus-wasnt/ (accessed December 11, 2014). Scholars who reviewed the book point out Aslan’s historical errors: Craig Evans (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/zealot-reza-aslan-tells-same-old-story-about-jesus.html?paging=off); Darrell Bock (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/when-scholarly-skepticism-encounters-jesus-christ/); Gary Manning (http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2013/aug/04/a-response-to-zealot-by-reza-aslan/); John Dickson (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/08/09/3822264.htm); and Joseph Loconte (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-loconte-phd/reza-aslan-zealot_b_3707276.html).
  7. Deepak Chopra, Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (New York: HarperOne, 2009); Deepak Chopra, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York: Harmony, 2009).
  8. Scholars debate which year, since either year is possible.
  9. According to philosopher William Lane Craig, “while the historian does not have direct access to the past, the residue of the past, things that have really existed, is directly accessible to him” (Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 226).
  10. “The evidence which the historian uses will include texts, as well as artifacts, and here, too, his reconstruction will be limited by the data” (Ibid., 229).
  11. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 327: “Short of some spectacular documentary find of new papyri or parchments of notes someone took on Jesus’ messages or accounts of his deeds traceable to the first half of the first century (or to something Jesus himself penned!), archaeology will never help us demonstrate that Jesus really did or did not do or say something that the New Testament Gospels claim.” However, Blomberg adds, “archaeology can demonstrate that the places mentioned in the Gospels really existed and that customs, living conditions, topography, household and workplace furniture and tools, roads, coins, buildings and numerous other ‘stage props’ corresponded to how the Gospels describe them. It can show that the names of certain characters in the Gospels are accurate, when we find inscriptional references to them elsewhere” (ibid.). Examples of place names include the synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 1:21), the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2), the pool of Siloam (John 9:7), and Jacob’s well (John 4). Individuals include Simon of Cyrene, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas.
  12. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215: “If one wonders why there are not more Roman sources for Jesus, we need to realize that for the reign of Tiberius there are only four sources: Suetonius, Tacitus, Velleius Paterculus (a contemporary), and Dio Cassius (c. a.d. 230).”
  13. Even Bart Ehrman, who has made a career out of casting doubt on the reliability of the New Testament, argues that Jesus is indeed an historical figure. See Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2013). Still, the claim that Jesus is only a mythic figure persists, particularly on the Internet and in “documentaries” such as The God Who Wasn’t There (205) and Zeitgeist (2007). For a refutation of the claims made in Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012).
  14. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  15. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63–64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, edited by William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  16. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, says something very similar in Acts 5:33–39.
  17. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, edited by Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  18. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  19. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  20. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html (accessed December 12, 2014).
  21. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, translated by B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  22. I have combined some different translations of this passage, using what is presented by Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?”, Jesus Under Fire, 214, and adding the last sentence from Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 43a, http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_43.html#43a_34 (accessed December 12, 2014).
  23. Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 233.
  24. Aslan, Zealot, xxviii.
  25. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  26. Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 260. The manuscript is Ì75.
  27. Consider Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews3 in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
  28. Köstenberger et al., The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 258.
  29. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80–93.
  30. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256–59.
  31. Gospel of Peter 10.
  32. Aslan, Zealot, xxvii: “Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 C.E., the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other and with Mark’s manuscript as a template, updated the gospel story by adding their own unique traditions, including two different and conflicting infancy narratives as well as a series of elaborate resurrection stories to satisfy their Christian readers.”
  33. The technical name for writing prophecy after an event has occurred is vaticinium ex eventu (Latin: “prophecy from the event”).
  34. See the argument for an early date of Luke in Köstenberger, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 261–64. It is very possible that part of Luke’s intention in writing Acts is to present Christianity as a religion that would not bring harm to the Roman Empire, and to show that Paul acted innocently (Paul makes a defense of his actions a few times in the book). Thus, Acts is a “trial brief” proving his innocence, written in advance of his hearing before Caesar, which is the reason why Paul went to Rome in the first place, though the trial is not mentioned in Acts (since the action of the book ends before the trial took place). See John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Nelson, 2001).
  35. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  36. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  37. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 251.
  38. For evidence that these “gospels” are later fictions, see Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).
  39. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.31.1.
  40. Adam Gopnik, “Jesus Laughed,” The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/17/jesus-laughed (accessed December 13, 2014).

 

The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

This sermon was preached by Pastor Brian Watson on April 23, 2017.
Sermon recording.
PDF of typescript (not a transcript of the recording, but the written sermon that was prepared in advance).

Have you ever heard news that sounds too good to be true? Years ago, I used to get emails offering me great fortune. I’m not sure when this started, but it was around 2004, and I got several of these messages. I guess I was particularly lucky. Here’s an example:

Dear Friend,

I am Barrister Rotimi Adams, the personal attorney to Mr. James Watson, herein after referred to as my client, a national of your country, who until his death was a major crude oil contractor with the federal government of Nigeria.

My client and his entire family were involved in a fatal motor accident along the Sagamu express road, sparing none of the occupants of the vehicle. I have since then made several enquiries to your Embassy, in a bid to locate any relation of my client, and these efforts of mine have not been productive. I then decided to trace his last name over the Internet, and came across your name that is why I have contacted you to assist me in securing the money and property left behind by my client before they are declared as unclaimed and unserviceable by the bank where they have been lodged for safekeeping. I am particularly interested in securing the funds lodged with Global Trust Bank Plc, totaling fifteen Million, United States Dollar (USD15M). This is because the said Bank has issued a notice to me, unequivocally instructing me to produce the Next of Kin/Beneficiary to the said account within the next ten official working days, or have the account confiscated.

I solicit your consent to enable me produce you as The Next of Kin to my deceased client, since you both bear the same last name. The funds will then be transferred to you as the beneficiary and shared according to a proposed sharing pattern /ratio of 70:30, i.e. 70% for me and 30% for you. I will provide all the necessary legally obtained documents to back up any claim we make regarding this process, and will just require your understanding and cooperation to enable us achieve success within a legitimate arrangement, eliminating any liability resulting from any breach of the prevalent laws.

Your urgent response will be highly appreciated; you can as well forward to me your Telephone number immediately for more discussion.

Best Regards,
Barrister Rotimi Adams[1]

That’s great news. I could get 30 percent of $15 million—that’s $4.5 million! Of course, all I have to do is transfer the good barrister some funds in order to pay the fees for acquiring the necessary documents. But it’s totally worth it. After all, what’s an investment of a thousand or two dollars when I’m getting millions of dollars back?

Of course, this is a scam. And we know it is. You’d have to be pretty naïve not to see that. And I should know, because I fell for it twice. But by the third time I received a message like that, I was wise to those scammers. All kidding aside, we know that such a message is too good to be true. We don’t have reason to trust Barrister Adams, or whoever it was that wrote that email.

That email promised great wealth, but the message of the Bible promises us something far greater. The Bible promises us not a few million dollars. The Bible promises us eternal life, a life with God in a perfect world, a life that never ends.

Today, we’re starting to look at a letter that is most certainly written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ original followers. Towards the end of the 1 John, he tells us the reason for writing this letter. In 1 John 5:13, he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the Gospel of John, which uses very similar language, John writes,

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

John wrote his Gospel, his biography of Jesus, so that we would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that we would have life by believing in him. And John wrote his first letter so that his readers would know for certain that they have eternal life.

John tells us that by having a proper relationship with Jesus, we will live forever. It’s hard to top that claim. It’s the best news. And John is so sure about his message that he writes, in chapter 4: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6). John says that those who disagree with him don’t know God. That, too, is a big claim. In chapter 2, he writes, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23). So, not only do you have to listen to John to know God, but you must agree with how he describes the Son, Jesus, in order to have the Father. No one who holds a different view of Jesus than the one John presents has a right relationship with God. No one who denies John’s view of Jesus has eternal life.

A lot is riding on these claims. If John is right, one’s eternal destiny is on the line. John wrote this letter because people who had different views of Jesus left the churches that he wrote to. John wanted to reassure his readers about who Jesus is and how they could know they have eternal life. Having a right view of Jesus is essential. That’s not because God is going to give us a final exam at the end of our lives, as if we’ll be tested on some theological knowledge. No, the idea is that if you have a real relationship with Jesus, you’ll know what he’s like, just as if you’re actually married to your spouse, you’ll know what he or she is like. Jesus isn’t a wax nose. He has a particular identity. And the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, isn’t something we can edit. This message has a particular content. Different religions say very different things about God and Jesus. We need to know who the real Jesus is.

So, how do we know that John is right? How do we know his claims are true? Why should we trust John when we can’t trust Barrister Adams?

One reason we should consider John’s claims is that he says he was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. And, unlike Barrister Adams, John had little to gain by making that claim. He certainly didn’t stand to make $10.5 million. As a Jewish man living in the Roman Empire, John’s claims about Jesus would put him at odds with both Jews who weren’t Christians and Romans who weren’t Christians. In fact, it’s hard to understand why John and the other apostles would make the claims they do unless they believed what they were writing was true.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s read the beginning of John’s first letter. I’ll read 1 John 1:1–4:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.[2]

John begins by talking about “the word of life.” That could be the message of the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done. But John says that he and others touched the word of life. So, he must be referring to Jesus himself. Jesus is the word of life. You can’t separate the man from the message about him. This is very similar to the beginning of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1–5).

In both his Gospel and his first letter, John talks about “the beginning.” In 1 John, it seems like he could be talking about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But in the Gospel, he’s talking about the beginning. In this Gospel, John says that Jesus is God and that he created the universe. Christianity says that Jesus is both God and man, that he is the one who created the universe and everything in it, and that he is the one who gives eternal life.

So, why should we believe this claim?

That’s a complex question, and I won’t be able to do justice to it fully this morning. The evidence is too complex to get into fully, but I’ll try to give us reasons why it’s rational to believe that Christianity is true. After all, if it’s not true, it’s useless. If you read the New Testament, you can very easily see that the writers are stating quite clearly that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). They say that if he didn’t rise from the grave in a real, indestructible body, Christianity is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12–19).

There are many reasons why people believe in a certain religion. Often, people accept their parents’ faith, or the faith of those around them. Of course, other people rebel against their parents’ faith, and their own faith (or lack thereof) seems to be a reaction against their upbringing. Some people are attracted to a religion because they like what it teaches. They are attracted to a certain vision that a religion paints. But if a religion isn’t true, there’s no good reason to embrace it.

If I didn’t think John and others saw Jesus during his life, could testify to his death, and saw and even touched Jesus after he rose from the grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian. I was thinking about this recently: What would have to be true for me to stop being a Christian? In other words, what would be a defeater for the Christian faith?

I don’t think science can disprove Christianity. I don’t believe the Bible is a book of science. There are ways to harmonize the Bible with various scientific paradigms without doing damage to the text of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that scientists are always right. Not at all. But I don’t think science has the tools to disprove Christianity.

Some people assume that the miraculous and the supernatural don’t exist, and that since Christianity is built on these things, it’s false. But, again, I don’t think science disproves miracles. To disprove miracle claims, you would have to be omniscient. Think about it: To say, “A dead man has never risen from the grave two days after being killed,” is to say that you have known what has happened to every single dead person from the dawn of time. Of course, dead people stay dead. Unless. Unless God exists. If God exists, anything is possible. If God exists, he can bring the dead to life, just as he made a universe out of nothing. We have a number of lines of evidence for the existence of God as well as philosophical arguments that show that the idea of God is rational and coherent. So, miracles are certainly philosophically possible. And we have numerous miracle claims throughout history, from around the world. Many people from all times and places have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3] Though I have never personally witnessed a miracle, I have every reason to believe that miracles are possible.

I think there are only two ways that you could disprove Christianity. One is to show that the Christian system of thought, or the Christian worldview, is incoherent or self-contradictory. Having studied the Christian worldview extensively, I think it’s a system of thought that doesn’t contradict itself. By itself it makes sense. And I think it makes sense of life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Christianity is true. It could all be a lie. If someone could prove that the Gospels and the other New Testament documents were simply made up, and if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, then I would have to abandon Christianity.

So, should we trust John and his claim that he and others can testify that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God, that he is the Creator, and he is the one who can give eternal life? I think we have many good reasons to trust John. But in order to see why Christianity is unique as a religion, we have to consider how it differs from other religions.

Before we do that, let make one important comment: We live in a pluralistic society, in which there are many religions. And we live in a relativistic culture, which often refuses to state that any religion is true. But the fact is that they can’t all be true. They say very different things about God and Jesus. They say very different things about how to be reconciled to God and have an eternal reward. The things they say are contradictory. It is impossible that they’re all true. I believe that Christianity is true and that other religions are false. That doesn’t mean I have to be hateful or disrespectful to people with different views. I can love other people even when I say, “I think you’re wrong.” That’s true tolerance.

So, my point is that we shouldn’t belittle other religions. My point is that they can’t all be true. We should, at the least, know the story of their origins. To see why we should trust that the Bible is God’s message to us, we should look at how other religions have made claims about their holy books.

First, let’s consider the story of how Islam started. The story is about a man named Muhammad, living in what is now Saudi Arabia. “Muhammad was in the habit of taking regular periods of retreat and reflection in the Cave of Hira outside Mecca. This is where the first revelation of the Qur’an came to him in 610 ce, when he was 40 years old.”[4] Muhammad was alone in the cave the first time the angel spoke to him, but subsequent times others were with him. According to one account,

When he experienced the ‘state of revelation’, those around him were able to observe his visible, audible, and sensory reactions. His face would become flushed and he would fall silent and appear as if his thoughts were far away, his body would become limp as if he were asleep, a humming sound would be heard about him, and sweat would appear on his face, even on winter days. This state would last for a brief period and as it passed the Prophet would immediately recite new verses of the Qur’an. The revelation would descend on him as he was walking, sitting, riding, or giving a sermon, and there were occasions when he waited anxiously for it for over a month in answer to a question he was asked, or in comment on an event: the state was clearly not the Prophet’s to command. The Prophet and his followers understood these signs as the experience accompanying the communication of Qur’anic verses by the Angel of Revelation (Gabriel), while the Prophet’s adversaries explained them as magic or as a sign of his ‘being possessed’.[5]

According to another account, after Muhammad experienced the first encounter with the angel, “Mohammed [sic] came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit.”[6] Both of those accounts, by the way, were written by Muslims.

Muhammad then spoke these revelations to others, who wrote down the revelations. They were only collected into the form of the Qur’an after Muhammad’s death in 632. The Qur’an is very different from the New Testament for a few reasons. One, the revelation came from an angel to one man. Two, Muhammad is not really the author of the Qur’an. He relayed a message, but, at least in the story of Islam, he is not considered an author. And, three, the content of the Qur’an ranges from the time of the Old Testament, including many stories of Old Testament figures like Adam, Noah, Moses, and David, to the time of the New Testament, including many mentions of Jesus. But these revelations were given many centuries after the events took place.

The New Testament, on the other hand, is different. One, it was written by at least eight people and probably nine. Two, it was authored by people, who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to write what he wanted written. That’s why we can talk of John writing his Gospel or a letter, or Paul writing letters. They are truly authors, but they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do, so that we also say their words are God’s words. And, three, the authors of the New Testament claim to be eyewitnesses or people associated with eyewitnesses. For example, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he makes it clear that he wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus, but he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote up his own orderly account of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1–4).

The Qur’an talks about Jesus but it says he isn’t the Son of God. It says,

People of the Book [in this case, Christians], do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop [this], that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.[7]

To Muslims, Jesus is just a great prophet, but he is not divine.

The Qur’an also claims Jesus wasn’t crucified. Therefore, there is no resurrection. The Qur’an curses “The People of the Book” (in this case, unbelieving Jews) for killing prophets. These are the people who said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” But then, in a parenthetical note, it says, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.”[8]

The problem with this is that the Qur’an was delivered six hundred years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the grave. Even people who are skeptical about Jesus’ identity know that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That is one of the most agreed-upon facts in the ancient world.[9]

So, the Qur’an gets Jesus wrong. It seems that the Qur’an is a bit of a mash-up of Jewish and Christian doctrines, including later Jewish legends. It seems to contain information from false Gospels, which were written beginning in the late second century, well after all the eyewitnesses to Jesus had died.[10]

Here is the point: The Qur’an is wrong about Jesus’ death. That is certain. And it says very different things about God than the New Testament does. It says different things about salvation, or how to achieve eternal life. Which one would you trust: Eyewitness testimony written by multiple sources within a lifetime of Jesus’ ministry or supernatural revelations directed through one man six centuries later?

Now let’s move on to the origins of Mormonism. Their major prophet, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), lived twelve hundred years after Muhammad. In 1823, in upstate New York, Smith was allegedly visited by an angel named Moroni. The angel told Smith about golden plates, upon which was engraved “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” He also told Smith about two stones, the Urim and Thummim, which were “seer stones” that could help Smith translate the contents of the plates into English. The angel told Smith that when he got these plates and stones, he could only show them to a few people. If he showed them to others, he would die. Then, a vision was given to him that indicated the location of the plates. However, he wasn’t allowed to take the plates, which were buried in the ground in a stone box, until 1827.[11]

Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.”[12] Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person.[13] After translating The Book of Mormon, the angel told Smith to return the golden plates.

There are a number of problems with The Book of Mormon. One great problem has to do with its original language, the so-called “Reformed Egyptian” language. In another Mormon book, The Pearl of Great Price, we’re told that one of Smith’s associates, a man named Martin Harris, brought samples of this “Reformed Egyptian” language to a professor at Columbia University, named Charles Anthon. (Martin Harris, by the way, is listed in The Book of Mormon as one eleven total witnesses who saw the golden plates.) According to The Pearl of Great Price, Anthon said that Smith’s translation was correct and that the portion not translated yet contained Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic characters.[14]

That sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t want to have their translation of an ancient language verified by a professor? But there’s a problem. A man named E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”[15]

As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”[16]

Now, let’s compare those stories with the story of how the New Testament was written. The New Testament wasn’t delivered on plates by an angel. It wasn’t dictated by angel. The story is that the eternal Son of God became man and lived in Galilee. He taught in unforgettable, unparalleled ways. He called twelve disciples, who witnessed his teachings and the miracles he performed. At least one of them saw him die, and they all (minus Judas, who was replaced by Matthias) saw him alive after he rose from the grave. Some of them would later write down biographies of Jesus. Others would write letters to churches. At least two other people who weren’t eyewitnesses—Mark and Luke—wrote their own biographies. Mark knew the apostle Peter and Luke knew the apostle Paul. Luke seems to have interviewed other eyewitnesses, including Mary. And Luke wrote the history of the early church called the book of Acts. When they wrote, they were under the direction of the Holy Spirit, who caused them to write what he wanted written. The Holy Spirit used their experiences, knowledge, and personalities to write what he wanted written.

At least eight different people wrote the 27 books of the New Testament. They didn’t write it all together, in the same time and in the same place. It’s not as if they stayed together in a room in Jerusalem and churned it out in a few months. They wrote in different places (Judea, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, etc.), at different times (roughly 48–96), to different churches and/or individuals in different locations. James White, an author who was written on many topics related to the Bible, calls this “multifocality.”[17]

We should observe that the apostles and their associates had no political power. Their own writings admit that sometimes they disagree with each other. Paul says that he had to correct Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. In Acts 15:36–41, we’re told that Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement.” One can suppose that the apostles as well as men like Mark and Luke conspired to fabricate a story, that they made things up to get a following or to gain power. But they had everything to lose, including persecution by Jews and Gentiles. And they don’t always present themselves in most flattering light. In the Gospels, Peter is often presented as headstrong and foolish. Yet he was the leader of the apostles. Why would anyone make that up?

Here are some positive reasons to believe that the New Testament is trustworthy. One, the documents of the New Testament were written early, within the first century A.D. As opposed to the Qur’an, which reports on events that took place hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, the New Testament reports on events that took place only years or decades earlier. Two, the books of the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude) or those who associated with eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and perhaps the author of Hebrews). Three, the New Testament documents were written by multiple men, who didn’t always agree in life, but who agreed in their writings. Four, we have thousands of manuscripts of these books, some dating to as early as the beginning of the second century. That may not seem very impressive until you start comparing manuscript evidence with other ancient books. Five, archaeological evidence corroborates the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that every event described in the New Testament has left an artifact. But historical places and the names of people have been verified. It used to be that people thought that John’s Gospel was written far too late to be written by one of Jesus’ followers. But archaeological discoveries have shown that John’s knowledge of Jerusalem, was very accurate. And this is something that only someone was familiar with the city prior to its destruction in the year 70 could know.[18] Six, if we can trust that the New Testament is basically historically accurate, then we can see that Jesus often referred to the Old Testament as God’s word (John 10:35; cf. Matt. 19:4–5; 22:43), as an unbreakable (John 10:35), and unalterable document (Matt. 5:17–20). He clearly viewed the Old Testament as authoritative (Matt. 4:1–11). He told his disciples that his words would never pass away (Matt. 24:35). He told them that after he had ascended to heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things and cause them to remember what he said (John 14:26; 16:13–14).[19]

If you want to know more about why you can trust the New Testament to be true, you can visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and find some things I’ve written under the “Articles” section, which is under the “Media” tab.[20] I would also recommend a couple of books. One is Cold Case Christianity, by an LA homicide detective named J. Warner Wallace.[21] Wallace has solved many previously unsolved murder cases, cases that went “cold.” He has been featured on Dateline NBC. He was an atheist in his mid-30s when he decided to investigate the “case” of Christianity. He treated the Gospels like evidence reports and after doing a lot of research, he came to believe they’re true. He also has a website: http://coldcasechristianity.com. Another book that I would recommend is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.[22] He has a chapter on the trustworthiness of the Gospels, but his book also handles common objections to Christianity and presents a positive, and even beautiful, case for the faith.

Not only is the story of how the New Testament was put together different from the origin stories of the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, but the message is very different. In Christianity, there is a clear distinction between God and human beings. The same can’t be said of Mormonism, which teaches that God was a man and that men can be gods. But Christianity, as opposed to Islam, also teaches that we can truly know God and call him our Father. Christianity says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). There is no equivalent concept in Islam. In fact, John tells (1 John 1:3) that we can have fellowship with one another and with God. We can be united to God and have a real, personal relationship with him. That’s why John says that his letter makes his joy—and our joy—complete.

And both Islam and Mormonism have a system of merit. Islam says all our works will be weighed on scales.[23] Those whose good works outweigh their bad works and who confess that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger” will enter Paradise. Mormonism focuses on obedience. In the words of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President (or Prophet) of the LDS Church, “Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide by the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground.”[24]

But Christianity is different. It says we can’t earn our way to God (or become gods and earn our own planets). Christianity says that God came down to us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The God who is love sent his Son. That is, God the Father sent God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the perfect life that God required; he is the only truly righteous person. Yet his righteousness is credited to all who trust him. (We’ll learn more about what that faith looks like as continue to study 1 John). And Jesus died for us. His death satisfied God’s just demands. All who trust in him have eternal life. This is a gift given to us by a God who comes to us. It is not something we can earn from a God who is either distant and tyrannical or who is, in the end, fundamentally not all that different from us.

If you’re a Christian, I hope this message gives you confidence to know that we have good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. I hope that you can use elements of this message when you try to share the gospel with others. And if you’re not yet a Christian, I would encourage you to do your homework. Be like Jim Wallace and examine the evidence. I would be glad to meet with you, answer any questions you have, and give you resources.

The story of Christianity is unique. I think it’s more beautiful than the story of other religions. And, more importantly, it’s true.

Notes

  1. I didn’t actually save the original emails. I found this example at https://www.expertlaw.com/library/consumer/spam_email_fraud3.html and slightly edited it.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. For an in-depth treatment of miracles, see Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
  4. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “Introduction,” in The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.
  5. Ibid., xiv.
  6. Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 19.
  7. Qur’an 4.171 in Haleem’s translation.
  8. Qur’an 4.157–158 in Haleem’s translation.
  9. In fact, one strategy for demonstrating the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is to rely on three facts that most scholars, whether they’re believers or not, agree to be true. The first is that Jesus of Nazareth, a remarkable figure who was a wise teacher and possibly a miracle worker, was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. The second is that after Jesus died, his followers claimed to have seen him alive again. They claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to various groups of people for a number of days. The third is that Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as the apostle Paul, came to believe in Jesus even though he had previously been an unbelieving Jew and an opponent of Christianity. Given these three facts, it’s hard to explain how they could have occurred unless Jesus actually rose from the grave. Jesus’ followers could be lying, but they couldn’t have experienced a group dream or hallucination. But why would they lie? Lying would bring persecution to them from both Jews who rejected Jesus and Roman Gentiles who said that Caesar, not Jesus, is Lord. And since Christians refused to worship the many gods of the Greco-Roman world, they were often ostracized. And why would Paul lie? He was an enemy of Jesus. He would have no reason to hallucinate a vision of Jesus or to fabricate stories of Jesus.
  10. For more information, see James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), 229–247.
  11. This information is taken from “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” located at the beginning of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981).
  12. It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.”
  13. See “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:68–73, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  14. “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:63–65, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  15. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270–272; quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 212–213.
  16. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216. The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls supposedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud. See Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449–55.
  17. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82.
  18. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 182–183. See also J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 20
  19. One could also add a seventh reason to believe the New Testament. Where the Qur’an and The Book of Mormon seem to protest too much about their truthfulness, the New Testament, while affirming its truthfulness, has an actual ring of truth to it. It doesn’t sound like a fable or a myth. If you compare it with false Gospels from the second and third centuries, such as The Gospel of Peter, you can see what I mean. (You can read that document here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html.) C. S. Lewis, who was a professor of literature, once made the following observation: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage . . . or else, some unknown [ancient] writer . . . without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.” (C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967], 155, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [New York: Riverhead, 2008], 110).
  20. https://wbcommunity.org/articles. See, “Why We Can Trust the New Testament,” https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament; “The New Testament versus The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an,” https://wbcommunity.org/new-testament-versus-book-mormon; and “Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection.
  21. J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013).
  22. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008).
  23. Qur’an 21.47; 23.99–104; 99:6–8
  24. Joseph F. Smith, “Eternal Life and Salvation 441,” in Gospel Doctrine, 11th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/gospeldoctrine009956mbp/gospeldoctrine009956mbp_djvu.txt.

 

Justification (Galatians 2:15-21)

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Test the Spirits (1 John 4:1-6)

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