The Heart

How do we handle our emotions wisely? The book of Proverbs speaks about the heart and various emotions. God cares about how we feel. Our feelings often betray us, but the hope of the gospel strengthens our weary hearts. Brian Watson preached this message on October 11, 2020.

A Friend

To live well, we need real friends. The book of Proverbs highlights the importance of friendship. The good news is that there is someone who can be our friend, who will stick with us through adversity. Brian Watson preached this sermon on August 30, 2020.

Anger

Anger is a common and explosive emotion. The Bible warns against anger, but there is a proper place for it. Find out how to be angry (and not be angry) in a godly way. Brian Watson preached this message on August 23, 2020.

Self-Control

A person without self-control is open to attacks from without and within. This is certainly true in the area of lust. Brian Watson preached this message on August 9, 2020.

To Know Wisdom (Proverbs 1)

We are flooded with information and misinformati0n. What we need is not always more facts. We need wisdom to learn how to live life well and to interpret what we experience. Wisdom begins with fearing the Lord, who is the source of wisdom. Brian Watson preached this message on May 10, 2020.

Why Are You Troubled?`

What is troubling us? Usually, we’re troubled because we expected something or hoped for something and didn’t get it. But if we understand who Jesus truly is and what he came to do, and if we put our hope in him, we will not be disappointed. Listen to this message from Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.

(The sound quality isn’t great. That is true for the last three or four weeks. We’ll work to improve sound quality going forward.)

Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit (Luke 23:44-56)

Why did Jesus die? What is the meaning of his death? Find out by listening to his sermon, preached by Brian Watson on April 5, 2020.

I Find No Guilt in This Man

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on March 22, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

This is a very strange time in our lives. And it can feel like a very heavy time. It’s a time of uncertainty, and it can be a time of fear. We have already heard the reports of high death counts in China and Italy, and it’s natural to wonder how many might die of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in America. As we respond to this pandemic by shutting down public gatherings, we know that life won’t be the same for us for some time, and that can lead to anxiety and panic. At times like these, we long for hope. We may wonder what all of this has to do with God. We may wonder what God is doing, and why there are things such as deadly viruses in the world.

Those kinds of responses and questions are natural. They come with living in an uncertain world. They come with living in a world that is marred by diseases, natural disasters, and death. So, where is hope? What does this have to do with God? What is God doing? I’m not sure that I can answer all those questions completely this morning, but I think we can get partial answers as we turn to another heavy time in history. In fact, I would argue that this was the heaviest time of all history. This is the time when God himself was subject to the powers of darkness.

This morning, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. If you haven’t been with us before, you should know that we’re a church that is committed to studying the whole Bible. That means that we go through entire books of the Bible, looking at one passage each week. If you want to learn more about the rest of this book of the Bible, you can visit wbcommunity.org/luke. This morning, we’re going to look at Luke 23:1–25. If you have a Bible at home, I’m sure you can find that passage rather quickly. If you’re on your computer, you can pull it up by typing into your web browser “esv.org/luke+23.”

To give us some context: Jesus has been arrested by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They have charged him with blasphemy, for claiming to believe that he is the Messiah, or the Christ, and the Son of God. Messiah or Christ mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, God promised that there would be a king of Israel who would reign forever and who would defeat Israel’s enemies. He would bring about justice and peace. He would be a perfect king. Now, Jesus is that perfect King, and he is the Son of God. But the Jewish leaders didn’t believe that.

The Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus, but they didn’t have the authority to put someone to death. They were living under the rule of the Roman Empire, the world’s superpower. If they wanted to put Jesus to death, they had to present him to the occupying forces. So, they bring him to Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea. The prefect was in charge of keeping the peace. He had the power to enforce capital punishment. That’s why Jesus is now presented to Pilate.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 23:1–25:

1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

When the Jewish leaders bring Jesus before Pontius Pilate, they make three accusations. They say that Jesus is misleading the nation, which means that his teaching is somehow dangerous and deceptive. Or so they think. But the fact is that they were misleading the nation, whereas Jesus only taught what was true. They also claim that he has forbidden giving money to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. But that is false. Jesus said it is right to pay taxes to Caesar Luke 20:25). Then, they say that Jesus has claimed to be the Christ, a king. That’s true. Jesus is the Christ, and he is the King of kings. But not in the way that some people might think. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman Empire. He didn’t come to command an army and lead a revolution. He was no political threat to the Roman Empire. But the Jewish leaders hope that by presenting Jesus to Pilate in this way, that would be enough to get him executed.

Interestingly, similar charges are brought against Christians in the book of Acts. Paul was a great missionary and teacher, who traveled through the Roman Empire after Jesus’ death and resurrection, telling people about Jesus. When he was in the city of Thessalonica, in modern-day Greece, with his associate Silas, they taught about Jesus in the local synagogue. Some people didn’t like what they heard about Jesus, and they tried to get these Christians in trouble with the local authorities. They couldn’t find Paul and Silas, but they brought a man named Jason before the city’s authorities and said, “These men who have turned the world upside down . . . are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). Jesus has always been viewed as a threat by some people. That’s still true today. It’s true in totalitarian countries, like North Korea. It’s true of Communist countries like China. But it’s also true of individuals. A lot of people reject Jesus because they realize that Jesus is an authority. You can’t really be a Christian without coming under the authority of Jesus. People realize that if you become a Christian, your life must change in some way. There are some things that you may have to give up. And they don’t like that. Some people just don’t like being told what to do. They want to be their own authorities.

Now, you can remain your own authority in this life and reject Jesus. But you can’t be your own king and have Jesus. If you reject Jesus, you reject your only path to God and to eternal life in a new creation where there are not more diseases and deadly viruses, where there is no more death. If you come under Jesus’ authority, you must admit your own failures and limitations, and you must start to obey King Jesus. You can’t have it both ways.

When Pilate is told about these charges, he asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews. Jesus only says, “You have said so.” These are the only words that Jesus says in this whole passage. Jesus doesn’t defend himself. He doesn’t make any qualifications to the charges made against him. This must have puzzled Pilate. He must have looked at Jesus, who was already beaten and must have looked rather weak, and not seen a threat to the Roman Empire. So, he says, “I find no guilt in this man.” Luke makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving of death.

But the crowds aren’t happy with that. They try to convince Pilate that Jesus is stirring up the people, and not just in Jerusalem. He has taught throughout the regions of Judea and Galilee. When Pilate hears this, he wonders whether Jesus was a Galilean. Galilee was a separate region, to the north, and it was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who was the Jewish ruler when Jesus was born. These Jewish rulers were under the authority of the Roman Empire, but Rome allowed them to exercise some power. So, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod Antipas. Perhaps Pilate was trying to pass the buck. He saw an innocent man and an angry crowd, and he didn’t want to take responsibility for whatever happened to Jesus.

At any rate, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. Let’s read what happens next. Here are verses 6–12:

When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

Herod Antipas was the Jewish ruler over Galilee and another region called Perea. He didn’t have all that much authority, since he was under Roman rule. He certainly didn’t have the authority that his father, Herod the Great, had. Herod the Great was a king, known as “King of the Jews.” But after his death, his kingdom was divided among his sons. Several years after this episode, this Herod sent his wife, Herodias, to Rome to ask if Herod could be given the title of “king.” The emperor refused and Herod was deposed.

This Herod was, like his father, a bad man. He took his brother’s wife as his own wife. He had John the Baptist beheaded. He wanted to see Jesus for some time (Luke 9:9). There was even a rumor that he wanted Jesus dead (Luke 13:31). But here we’re told that he wanted to see Jesus because he was hoping that Jesus would perform a “sign,” a miracle for him.

If you’ve ever seen Jesus Christ Superstar, you might remember that Herod sings a song in which he asks Jesus to turn his water into wine and walk across his swimming pool. He wants Jesus to perform for him. That’s how some people treat Jesus today, or how they treat God more generally. They expect God to perform wonders at their command. If God did that, then we would be the authorities. We would be kings. But God isn’t obligated to do what we demand. He has performed miracles, signs that point to his existence. Jesus did perform miracles, signs that illustrated what he came to do, which was to heal people of their greatest disease, sin. But he didn’t come to perform tricks or to entertain people’s curiosity.

So, Jesus doesn’t play that game. He doesn’t answer Herod’s questions. He knows that Herod is not sincerely interested in his identity or his mission. Yet, apparently, Herod doesn’t find Jesus to be a threat, despite the accusations given by the Jewish leaders. So, he sends him back to Pilate, but not before his soldiers mock Jesus. They put him in “splendid clothing,” as if to say, “If you’re such a great king, let’s dress you like one.” Of course, they didn’t believe he was king.

Then, Luke gives us this interesting little bit of information. Pilate and Herod had once been at odds with each other. But now, they became friends. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. They both agreed that Jesus was no threat. Yet neither of them did anything to save Jesus from the accusing Jewish leaders and the angry crowds. They were typical politicians, lacking courage and acting to save face.

So, Jesus is sent back to Pilate. Let’s read verses 13–16:

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

This section is important because it establishes once again that Pilate didn’t find Jesus guilty, and neither did Herod. Jesus did nothing wrong. Ever. He certainly didn’t do anything to deserve the death penalty. I’ll talk more about that in a moment. But first, it’s interesting to see that Pilate was hoping he could release Jesus. He thought that if Jesus were flogged, that would satisfy the blood lust of the crowd. And he did have Jesus flogged (Matt. 27:26; John 19:1). That was a terrible punishment on its own. Flogging was done with a weapon torture: a wooden handle with leather strips that had bone or metal attached to them. Flogging would tear the skin and could even kill a man. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied by some blood; they wanted Jesus dead.

Let’s now read verses 18–25:

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. 20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Pilate had a habit of releasing one criminal on Jewish holidays. The crowd knows this. They know that Pilate might release Jesus. So, they ask him to release another man instead, a man named Barabbas, an insurrectionist who had committed murder. He was basically a terrorist.

When Pilate tries to release Jesus instead, the crowds demand that Jesus be crucified. Crucifixion was a terrible way to kill someone. Roman citizens couldn’t be crucified. But enemies of Rome, people suspected of treason, could be. Crucifixion meant attaching a person to a cross with rope or nails and letting that person hang there until they could no longer breathe. It was a slow, agonizing way to die. And it was a public execution. It said: “Don’t mess with Rome.”

Pontius Pilate finds himself in a predicament. He can release Jesus, whom he finds to be innocent, but then he knows the crowds will not be satisfied. They might riot. And Pilate’s job was to maintain order. Or, he can give an innocent man over to the will of the people and release a real criminal. Pilate tries to plead with the crowd, but in the end, he gives into their demands. He releases Barabbas, a murderer, and he puts the only truly innocent person who has ever lived to death.

There’s a great irony here. Barabbas literally means “son of the father” (bar = son; abba = father). Jesus is the Son of God, the true Son of the true Father. Barabbas, obviously a guilty man and a true threat to the Roman Empire, is released. Jesus, who wasn’t a political threat and is the only sinless person who ever walked the face of the earth, is given the death penalty.

But that’s the message of Christianity, and Jesus’ death is no accident. And to understand this, we must consider the broader message of the Bible. The Bible says that God created the universe for his purposes. He didn’t have to create anything outside of himself. It’s not as if he was lonely or bored. But God chose to create the universe to display his greatness and to share his existence with human beings. God created humans in his image, which means they are supposed to reflect what he is like, to represent him on earth, and to rule the world by carrying out God’s commands. God also made us in his likeness, which means that we were made to be his children, to love him and obey him the way perfect children would love and obey a perfect parent. That’s good news, because it means that our lives have meaning and purpose. If there is no Creator, there is no ultimate meaning to life. We’re just cosmic accidents, and in the end, our lives don’t matter.

But there’s bad news. From the beginning, people have turned away from God. Instead of realizing that he is King, they wanted—and they still want—to be their own kings and queens, their own masters and lords. We tend to think the world revolves around us. And if there’s a God, he should do what we want. The result is that we live life on our terms, and not on God’s. We don’t do what he wants us to do, because we don’t love him as we should.

God desires perfect children, perfect covenant partners. God is perfect, and he can’t tolerate people making a mess of his creation. The first human beings lived in a garden paradise, where there was no death. But they were evicted from the garden, and were put in the wilderness, where life was hard, where we find diseases, where we die. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from God. We don’t see him; we don’t always feel his presence. Because of our sinful nature, we are alienated from each other. We have conflicts, we fight, we’re greedy and selfish—we hoard toilet paper and other supplies! And because of our sinful nature, we feel at odds internally. We realize we’re not who we should be, and we get depressed and anxious. We know we have thoughts and desires that are wrong. We know we have done and continue to do wrong things.

As I said, God cannot tolerate people making a mess of his creation. So, he kicked us out of paradise. And in this wilderness, we find things like viruses. The reason why things like the coronavirus exist is because of sin, because humans turned away from God in the beginning, something we call the Fall.

All of this is bad news. If we were to die separated from God by our lack of love, by our rebellion, by our sin, we would be alienated from him forever. And God would be right to punish and condemn us in that way.

But there’s really great news. There is a way back to God, a way back to paradise. And that way—the only way—is Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. That means that he is God. He’s divine. He has always existed. He created the universe. (It’s most accurate to say that the Father created the universe through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.) But over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a man. When Jesus was conceived in Mary, a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son of God added a second nature to himself. He still was and is God, but he also was and is a human being. This was God the Father’s plan, and it was God the Son’s plan (and God the Spirit’s plan, too).

The Son of God became a man for two reasons. One, to live the perfect life that God demands of human beings. That’s why it’s so important to see that Jesus was innocent. He is the only one who lived the way God wants us to live. He always loved God. He always worshiped God. He always obeyed God. He always loved other people perfectly. He was never greedy and selfish. So, he fulfilled God’s plans for humanity. And when people have a right relationship with Jesus, when they put their trust in him and are willing to follow him, then they are credited with his perfect standing, his innocence, his righteousness.

The second reason why the Son of God became a man was to pay the penalty for sin that his people deserve. We all deserve condemnation. And that sounds harsh, I know. But think about this: If you have a home, would you allow people there who don’t love you, who don’t abide by your rules, and who do things that are harmful to your family? You might put up with such a guest for a little while, but if they keep acting that way, you would kick them out. And that’s essentially what God does. He says, “You don’t want me, you don’t love me, you don’t want to obey my rules? Fine. Go your own way.” But that’s a terrible thing. God is the source of love. When we turn away from him, we find a world of hate. God is the source of beauty. When we turn away from him, we find ugliness. God is the source of light. When we turn away from him, we find darkness. God is the source of truth. When we turn away from him, we find lies. And God is the source of life. When we turn away from him, we find death.

If you want proof that people don’t really want God, consider something that happened this past week. We find ourselves in this strange world threatened by a new virus. You would think that if ever people would turn to God and humbly ask for his help, now would be the time. But we don’t see that happening. Sometimes, we something else, like a video of celebrities singing John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” You might have seen the video. Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman on the big screen, starts to sing the song, and then other celebrities follow her, singing one phrase at a time. It’s supposed to be a hopeful thing, signaling that we’re all in this together. If you know the song, you may remember some of the lyrics. The song can be taken as a hopeful vision of humans working together, united in harmony. But if you stop and think of the lyrics, it’s a troubling song. John Lennon asked us to imagine that there’s no heaven—“above us, only sky.” In other words, imagine that there’s no God. So, in a time of crisis, people are singing a song that says, “We don’t need God and religion. That stuff is divisive. We just need to love each other and get along, and then the world will be as one.” That song is proof that we don’t love God the way we should, that we don’t see that he is the one who gives us life and who sustains our lives at every moment. That song shows that we don’t see our desperate need for God. There’s no admission of our real problem, which is our sin. Frankly, the song is naïve, and it doesn’t provide us with any real answers to the very real problems of the world.

But Jesus is the answer. Jesus lives the perfect life. And Jesus pays the penalty for sin. He was crucified not just because some people didn’t believe him and hated him. He didn’t die just because Pontius Pilate was weak and was afraid to stand up to the crowds. He didn’t die just because he was betrayed, and because the powers of spiritual darkness wanted to destroy him. He died because it was God’s plan to have someone rescue us from the penalty of sin. This was Jesus’ plan, too. He laid down his life to pay for our sin. That’s why Jesus didn’t defend himself, and why he hardly says a word. The prophet Isaiah predicted Jesus’ sacrificial death roughly seven hundred years earlier. He said,

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth (Isa. 53:7).

Right before that verse in Isaiah 53, we read these words, also about Jesus:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:5–6).

When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered the death penalty, but also much more than that. He took on God’s righteous punishment against sin, his holy wrath. He endured hell on earth so that we don’t have to.

We don’t have to experience hell if come to Jesus and put our trust in him. If we trust in him, he takes away our sins. Our punishment has already been paid. And we are credited with his perfection. That’s the good news. We don’t have to earn our way to God. In fact, we could never do that. Christianity says that even our best efforts are always tainted by bad motives. But God came down to us. He entered a world that can be beautiful but also ugly, a world that is governed by orderly laws of nature but can also appear to be chaotic, a world that supports life but ends in death. He did this to rescue us and to bring us back to God, to bring us ultimately to paradise, which will come in the future, when God remakes the world and removes all suffering, sin, and death.

So, why do we have things like the coronavirus? They are the result of sin in the world. These things are part of living in a fallen world. Cancer and earthquakes, toilet paper hoarding and murder, are the result of sin in the world. But there’s good news. God entered this world, and he subjected himself to rejection and betrayal, to mocking and torture, and even to death, so that he could save us. God has not promised that this life will be free of pain and sickness. But he has promised that he will sustain his people, even through death. And he has promised that one day, Jesus will return to bring human history as we know it to an end. And on that day, a new era will begin. There will be no more pain, no more disease, no more wars, and no more death. It will be God and his people dwelling in a renewed and perfected creation.

I urge us all to put our hope in God. Let us look to him during this time. I don’t know exactly why God has us in this situation, but I know that he uses things like this to teach us lessons and to draw us closer to him. So, let us focus on God. Specifically, let us focus on Jesus. If you don’t know him yet, learn more about him. And put your trust in him. Only he would lay down his life for you. No politician will do that. No one else can save you from your real problem, which is a broken relationship with God. But Jesus can, and he stands ready to receive you if you come to him.

 

Are You the Son of God? (Luke 22:63-71)

Jesus’ path to the cross is marked by ironies. The one who is blasphemed is charged with blasphemy. The one who is Judge is judged. Jesus endured this to save to his people from their sins. Find out what happens when Jesus is put on trial, and God is in the dock. Brian Watson preached this sermon on March 1, 2020.

Pray That You May Not Enter into Temptation (Luke 22:39-46)

Jesus resisted temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane by praying to the Father. Though the cup of God’s wrath was not taken from Jesus, he yielded to the Father’s will and was strengthened for his mission. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 22:39-46 on February 9, 2020.

Him Who Betrays Me

This sermon was preached on January 19, 2020 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading below).

One of those questions people from all times and places have asked is: Why did this happen? We may ask that when someone we know unexpectedly dies at an early age. Why did she die so young? We may ask that when we look at the news and see a report of a war or a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. Why do people kill each other? Why did such a devastating earthquake happen? We may ask a similar question if something bad happens in our life. Why did that happen to my child? Why did my spouse get cancer?

And if we believe in God, we inevitably draw him into these questions. We wonder why God would allow evil, which can be defined as whatever causes the world to be the way it shouldn’t be. We have a sense that something is wrong, and we start to ask why that such a wrong thing should exist. The problem of evil can be formulated in many ways, but it’s basically expressed in these kinds of questions: If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and loving, why is there any evil at all? If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and loving, why is there so much evil? If God is all powerful, if he knows how to prevent evil, and if he’s truly loving and cares, then why is there such horrific acts of evil? If God is real, why did this particular evil event occur? If God loves me, if he has all the power that’s possible, why did this evil thing happen to me? How we answer those questions has everything to do with what we believe about God and this world that he has made.

We’re going to think about such questions today as we continue to look at the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re going to consider some verses that talk about how one of Jesus’ followers, one of the twelve disciples, arranged to betray Jesus. Jesus was aware that this was going to happen. He said it was determined by God. Yet he also said that those who commit evil are responsible for their sin.

We’ll begin by reading the first two verses of Luke 22. As you turn there, I want to remind you that the Gospel of Luke is a biography about Jesus. Like the other Gospel writers, Luke spends quite a bit of time detailing the days leading up to Jesus’ death. That’s because Jesus’ death and the events that led up to it are so important. This is Thursday, the day before Jesus will die. Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem.

Let’s now read Luke 22:1–2:

1 Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put him to death, for they feared the people.[1]

Why do the chief priests and scribes, some of the most prominent Jewish leaders, want to kill Jesus? And why does Luke tell us that they feared the people? They wanted to get rid of Jesus because they didn’t like what he was teaching. In John’s Gospel, we find out that they had long wanted to kill Jesus because he was challenging their religious customs and, more importantly, because he was making himself appear equal to God (John 5:18; 8:58–59; 10:30–31). Jesus taught in many ways that he is divine, that he is in fact the Son of God. The Jewish people did not yet realize that God is triune, that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. They didn’t realize that God the Father sent God the Son to become a human being. They didn’t think this was possible. They thought Jesus was lying. They thought he might actually be demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48). They certainly knew that he was a threat, and that he had to go.

But the Jewish leaders were afraid of what the crowd might do if they arrested Jesus in public. Jesus continued to gather crowds to himself. No one ever spoke like he did. No one was able to perform all the miracles that he performed. There was simply no one like him. Many people found hope in Jesus. Some were just fascinated by him. Jerusalem was full of people during the time of Passover, as Jewish pilgrims came from afar to celebrate the feast in their holy city. If Jesus was arrested in the city, there would be backlash, probably a riot. A riot would likely lead to some terrible consequences. The Jews lived under Roman rule. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was charged with maintaining order. If a riot broke out in the city, Roman soldiers would put an end to it in a violent fashion. The Jewish leaders might be removed from their positions. So, they had to find a way to get Jesus killed without stirring up a riot.

One of the reasons why Jesus died is because people did not believe that he is God. They thought he was committing blasphemy. They rejected him. But there are other reasons why Jesus died. Another reason is that Satan, the devil, wanted to thwart God’s plans. Satan is a mysterious, shadowy figure. Jesus himself called him a “murderer” and “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We might call him the very embodiment of evil. He’s no match for God—he’s not omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient—but he’s more powerful than mere humans. Satan tried to stop Jesus by tempting him (Luke 4:1–13). But Jesus, the perfect man, never sinned. He resisted Satan’s temptation. Satan continued his attack through the Jewish leaders who tried to trap Jesus in his own words. Jesus called them the devil’s children (John 8:44). But Jesus resisted all their traps. And now, Satan sees another opportunity. He will get Jesus through one of his followers.

Let’s read verses 3–6:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

We’re told that Satan “entered into” one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Judas Iscariot. What does this mean? This kind of language, of Satan actually entering a person, is rare in the Bible. In fact, as far as I’m aware, this is the only time that we’re told Satan did this. We’re told that other people were demon-possessed while Jesus was on the Earth. But we’re not told that Satan himself entered into them.

While it’s not clear what it means for Satan to enter into Judas, it doesn’t mean that Judas was no longer responsible for his actions, as we’ll see. I don’t think it means that he went into some kind of zombie-like trance, becoming an entirely different person. Judas was still Judas, still responsible for his actions. But he was under the very strong influence of the devil in a way that is unique. In his own Gospel, John says that Satan “put it into [Judas’s] heart . . . to betray” Jesus (John 13:2). Satan likely thought that if Jesus were put to death, that would be the end of him, that God’s plans would be thwarted. But Satan didn’t know the future. He didn’t understand that God would use him for his own wonderful plan.

So, Satan strongly influenced Judas to conspire with the Jewish leaders. They gave him money, and he would tell them how to arrest Jesus “in the absence of a crowd.”

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the verses that come next, which discuss how Jesus prepared to have one final Passover meal, one “last supper” with his disciples. We also looked at the what happened at that meal, how Jesus said that the elements of the meal—the bread and wine—would represent his body broken and his blood shed in order to initiate a new covenant with his people. Jesus knew that he would soon be put to death. He had already predicted his death several times (Luke 9:21–22, 44; 18:31–33). Jesus knew that he, the Son of God, became a human in order to die for the sins of his people.

Right after the verses we looked at two weeks ago, which told of him eating this last, intimate meal with his followers, teaching them the meaning of his impending death, something strange happens. Jesus tells them that he knows that one of his followers would betray him. Look at verses 21–23:

21 But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22 For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23 And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

Jesus knew that one of them was his betrayer. Did Jesus know that it was Judas? Luke doesn’t tell us that, but John does. Well before he died, Jesus seems to indicate that Judas is “a devil.” (See John 6:70–71). It’s possible to believe that Jesus only knew that one of his disciples would betray him, and not specicially that Judas would betray him. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus clearly identifies Judas as the one who will betray him, and when Satan enters into Judas, Jesus turns to him and says, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:21–27). Jesus knew what would happen.

In fact, Jesus said that what would happen to him, the Son of Man, was ordained by God. He says that he “goes as it has been determined.” All that was happening to Jesus was God’s plan. But that doesn’t mean that Satan knew that, or that Judas knew that, or that the Jewish leaders or the Roman officers and soldiers knew that. They were all acting according to God’s plan, but they were still responsible for their sins. What God meant for good, they simply meant for evil (Gen. 50:20). Their purpose was to harm Jesus, not to bring about good through his death. So, Jesus says that though he would “go” according to God’s plan, “woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” That’s basically a way of warning that the person who betrays Jesus will be condemned.

How can it be that God has a plan that uses evil, and that those who commit evil are still responsible for their sins?

Well, we must realize first that many Christians wouldn’t agree with what I just said. They don’t think God planned everything. Some people think that God simply knows in advance all that would happen. But that’s not the language Jesus uses. He doesn’t say that the Son of Man goes as it has been foreknown. He says that he goes as it has been determined—determined by God. (That God is not mentioned is typical. This is an example of the “divine passive.” An action is put in the passive voice that we understand to be God’s action.

Other people think that God can’t truly foreknow the future because the future hasn’t happened yet. God knows everything possible, but it’s not possible to know something that doesn’t yet exist. But Jesus makes specific predictions about the future actions of people. He knows what Judas will do. Judas chose to do something, under the very strong influence of Satan, and yet still this was all part of God’s plan.

The way that we view these events has everything to do with the way that we understand God’s relationship to evil. And how we understand God’s relationship to evil has everything to do with what we think about God and what we think about the world he has made. I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading about the problem of evil, and I want to quote from one Christian theologian and philosopher named Paul Helm. This is what he writes:

When there is a theological or philosophical debate about God and personal evil and how it is to be addressed, it must not be taken for granted that there is agreement about everything else except the matter in question. . . . If one has a concept of God as a Mr. Fixit . . ., then that person’s approach to God’s relation to personal evil will necessarily be different from that of someone who thinks of God as the transcendent and yet immanent Creator, the ground of being whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways. . . .

Similarly, someone who thinks that the universe is arranged principally for our benefit, or even for one’s own individual benefit, will necessarily have a different approach to the justification of personal evil than someone who believes about that “of him and to him and through him are all things” [Rom. 11:36]. . . . Someone whose attitude to personal evil presupposes that the death of our bodies is the terminus of life will necessarily approach the evaluating of that evil differently from someone who looks forward to the life everlasting.[2]

What he is saying is basically that our worldview shapes how we view evil. Is this life all there is, or does this life precede a life that never ends? Is there a God who is in charge of the universe? If so, what is this God like? Is he our cosmic butler, a doting grandfather, a “Mr. Fixit”? Or is he a God whose ways are not our ways, who has revealed himself yet who also has plans that are beyond our full understanding? Does the universe exist for primarily for us or for God? Is the goal of this life what we think of as happiness or is the goal of this life to know our Maker and to have a right relationship with him? How we answer these questions will shape how we view evil and God’s relationship to it.

The Bible clearly teaches that God is a transcendent God who is all-powerful, that he molds and shapes his creation in the way that he sees fit, according to his purposes. He has revealed much of his purposes, but not all. We know in part, not in full. There are certainly some mysteries about God and his ways. God made everything for his glory, to demonstrate his greatness. He also made everything because he simply is creating. God’s love knows no bounds, and it seems that his creation is an extension of his love. But the Bible presents God as one who is making a plan for his purposes, not primarily for ours. Yet since God is inherently good, his purposes are good. His overall plan is good. Yet, strangely, his plan contains evil. God doesn’t perform the evil, so he is not the author of sin. And there is only evil because evil is the only way to gain some greater goods, goods that aren’t possible without first there being any evil.

For example, we might say that things like bravery, overcoming adversity, and being victorious are all great goods. But they aren’t possible without there first being some kind of evil. If there’s no evil, no threat of harm and even death, there’s no bravery. If there’s no evil, there’s no triumph over evil. If there were no sin, the Son of God wouldn’t need to become a human being. The reason why Jesus came was to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). If the first human beings never sinned, and if all subsequent human beings never sinned, then Jesus wouldn’t need to become a human being. There would be no need for him to live the perfect life that we don’t live, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity, because we would already be living perfect lives. If we were living perfect lives, we would love God as we should. We would desire to know him and please him through the way we lived. If we lived perfect lives, we would love each other as we should. We wouldn’t be selfish and greedy. We wouldn’t hate other people. And we wouldn’t ignore or reject God. But the fact is, quite clearly, we’re not perfect. God desires to have perfect human beings. That’s his plan. And part of the reason Jesus came is to fulfill that plan.

Because God became a human being, God can better relate to his people. He knows what it’s like to be a human. That’s a great good that couldn’t come without sin. And because God became a human being, we can better understand what God is like. God isn’t some mysterious being that we can’t see or imagine. People who saw Jesus had a clearer picture of what God is like, because Jesus is the clearest revelation of God (Heb. 1:1–3). And we have access to what Jesus is like in the Bible.

But Jesus didn’t just come to live. He also came to die. He did that because God cannot tolerate evil actions. He can’t tolerate sin. As a perfect judge, he must have sin punished. You wouldn’t think highly of a human judge who had all the evidence before him, who could see that a certain person was guilty, and yet who swept all that evidence under the rug and let that guilty person go free. If you wouldn’t expect a human judge to do that, you shouldn’t expect the perfect divine judge to do that. So, God must punish sin. And sin is so heinously evil that it must be destroyed. It must be crushed. Sinners must be killed.

But God is gracious. He allowed for a substitute to come, someone to take the punishment that we deserve for sin. God the Father sent God the Son to die in place of all who would trust him. And God the Son came willingly to die, to lay down his life for his people. He takes their sin and receives the full penalty for that sin by dying on the cross. He was treated horribly, tortured and killed in a slow and painful way. But he also absorbed a spiritual punishment because what we can comprehend. Jesus takes the wrath of God, experiencing hell on earth, so that all who come to him in faith don’t have to experience that terrible reality.

And Jesus’ death—and his subsequent resurrection—are also great goods that couldn’t come without there first being evil. Obviously, it’s good for sinners to have a way to be forgiven. But Jesus’ death shows us how much God loves us. Jesus’ death teaches us the importance of sacrifice. And his resurrection is a great triumph. Without evil, there is no victory. There’s no great story of bravery and sacrifice. But with evil, there’s the greatest story ever told.

So, Jesus had to die. And someone had to kill Jesus. Many people had to plot Jesus’ death. The Jewish leaders, Judas, Satan, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who was too cowardly to release a man he believed to be innocent, the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus—all these individuals were part of God’s plan, though they didn’t know it. And we are part of God’s plan, too. Jesus died because our sin, the sin of all humanity, required it.

But just because we’re part of God’s plan doesn’t mean our sin isn’t evil, and that we’re not responsible for our sin. Verse 22 of this passage makes it clear that God is in charge of all that happens, but also that those who commit evil are held responsible for their sin. The reason that is so is because people willingly commit sin. Judas betrayed Jesus willingly, even if he was under the influence of Satan. And we all pursue our own desires and commit sins. It won’t do for us to complain to God that we can’t help it.

I want to drop an interesting footnote here. About fifteen years ago, a somewhat recently discovered ancient manuscript, the so-called Gospel of Judas, was finally translated into English. This Gospel portrays Judas as a hero, Jesus’ favorite disciple. Jesus secretly approached Judas and told him to betray him so that he would die. However, this is not the truth. This so-called “lost gospel” wasn’t really lost. It was most likely written in the second half of the second century, a hundred years or more after Luke wrote his Gospel, long after all those who witnessed Jesus had died. In the year 180, the Christian theologian Irenaeus dismissed the Gospel of Judas as fictitious history.[3] Strangely, there was a group of people called the Cainites who wrote stories about the villains of the Bible, like Cain and Judas. These people claimed that these villains were actually the real heroes of the Bible. 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.”[4]

So, Judas was not a hero. He did evil. In fact, we can say he participated in the greatest evil, killing the Son of God. I know many people would say that there have been greater evil’s than Jesus’ death. We have to admit that it’s hard to weigh acts of evil. How can we compare the Holocaust with the institution of slavery? Or, how can we compare the Holocaust with the abortion of tens of millions of preborn human beings each year? Even in America, there has been approximately 60 million abortions committed over the last forty-seven years, since Roe v. Wade was decided. We know scientifically that what is in the womb, whether it’s called a baby or a fetus, is a human life. That being is alive, and he or she has his or her own DNA and body, regardless of how small, how underdeveloped, and how dependent he or she is on the mother. We know these things from science, and yet we still allow the great evil of abortion to occur. At any rate, there are many evils that have been committed throughout history, and some of them quite grave, yet I think a case can be made that the greatest evil was the murder of Jesus. He was truly innocent, in a way that no other human being was innocent, because he never sinned. And he was and is truly God. If God is the greatest being, if all of reality is God-centered, then putting the God-man to death is the greatest evil.

And, yet, we know that Jesus died according to God’s plan. That is made clear also in Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts (see Acts 2:23; 3:18; 4:27–28). So, if the greatest evil went according to God’s plan, and if God works all things according to his will (Eph. 1:11), even determining the outcomes of what we would consider chance events (Prov. 16:33), then we can see that no evil is outside of God’s plans. Yet he works evil for good. Out of evil come things like bravery and victory, but also humility and spiritual growth, and many other things besides.

I know that all of this is hard to accept. Yet if we stopped and thought about it, all of us should be thankful for evil. I got this idea from another Christian philosopher, William Hasker.[5] Basically, he says that most people are glad that they exist. Yet most of us likely wouldn’t exist were it not for great evils in the world. War is a great evil, and many people die in wars. That is certainly true of World War II. Millions of people died in World War II, including over 400,000 Americans. My parents were born in New Jersey, rather close to New York City, shortly after the war ended. My mother was born at the end of 1946. My father was born in the middle of 1948. They met in high school, started dating, went to college together at Gordon College and married before they graduated. And I owe my existence to them. But it’s easy to imagine that if there were no World War II, I might not be alive. Both of my grandfathers served in the military during the war. They were married to my grandmothers before the war, and then they came back home and made babies. I imagine that there were men from that part of New Jersey who went off to war and were killed. They might have been married already, or perhaps might have married after coming back home, but they died. What if there was no war, and those men who went and died married and had children who were approximately the ages of my parents? What if that man had a son my mother’s age, and what if my mother met that son and fell in love with him instead of my father? Or what if that man had a daughter who met my father and married him? Or what if both happened? If any of that occurred, my parents wouldn’t have married each other. They wouldn’t have had my brothers and me. And I wouldn’t exist.

Now, that’s just one war. Imagine if World War I didn’t happen, and the Civil War. Imagine how different the population of American would be, not just in size, but in composition. Now think about all kinds of wars and genocides and natural disasters. If those didn’t occur, many people who now are alive wouldn’t exist. Other people would be alive, perhaps far more people, but we wouldn’t be here.

That’s not a full answer to the problem of evil. But it gives us a different perspective on it. The reality is that every event that occurs is interconnected with every other event in ways that we don’t understand. This is basically what is called “the butterfly effect.” Since we don’t understand how evil leads to good doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It has happened. And the greatest example of God using evil for good is the death of his Son.

So, though we may not understand why evil has occurred, we can trust that God is in control, and that his purposes are good. The greatest example of his goodness and his love, even in the face of evil, is the death of Jesus. Though evil people plotted against Jesus, and though the devil helped bring it about, it was God’s plan. In fact, we can say that it was through the death of Jesus that God trapped Satan. Satan was hanged with his own noose. God brings about the death of evil through evil.

The death of Jesus shows us that though God is in control of evil, he isn’t cold and distant. God knows what it’s like to experience evil firsthand. The Son of God was mocked, srejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. Jesus knows what it’s like to be born, to grow up, to be hungry and thirsty and tired, to have people ridicule him, to have his friends desert him. He knows what it’s like to be lonely and forsaken. And he knows what it’s like to die. God can relate to us in our suffering because he has suffered. And even this was all part of God’s plan.

The lesson for us is to know that God is in charge, and to know that he has a plan that includes evil and defeats evil. That center of that plan is Jesus. The plan hasn’t been completed just yet. There’s obviously still evil in the world. When Jesus comes again, evil will be pulled up by its long roots and destroyed. In the meantime, we must trust God. We don’t have to understand all the mysteries of evil. Only God knows them. But we must trust God. When evil comes our way, it is intended for our good. We don’t have to like evil and suffering. No one does. But we must cling to God and trust he has a reason for it. If possible, we must work against evil. The fact that God is in charge doesn’t mean we should be passive. He teaches us to fight against oppression, to expose evil, to help those who are suffering. Our fighting against evil is also part of God’s plan, and it helps us become the kind of people that God wants us to be. But our best efforts will not destroy evil. Only Jesus can do that. And Jesus died to destroy the evil that lurks within us, to take it upon his shoulders and crush it. A God who is in control, and a God who would sacrifice himself for us, is a God worth trusting, even when we don’t understand.

I urge us all to trust Jesus. He is the only way to escape evil. And if we trust in Jesus, we can trust that every evil we’ve experienced will turn out for our good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Paul Helm, “God’s Providence Takes No Risks,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 345–46.
  3. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.31.1.
  4. Adam Gopnik, “Jesus Laughed,” The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/17/jesus-laughed (accessed December 13, 2014).
  5. William Hasker, “On Regretting the Evils of This World,” in The Problem of Evil: Selected Readings, ed. Michael L. Peterson, 2nd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017).

 

 

Him Who Betrays Me (Luke 22:2-6, 21-23)

Jesus knew that one of his disciples would betray him. This was determined, yet Judas, the betrayer, was responsible for his sin. This gives us an insight into the problem of evil (why there is evil if God is all-powerful and good). Brian Watson preached this sermon on January 19, 2020.

Do This in Remembrance of Me

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 5, 2020.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading).

When I was a child, there were many things that I did not understand about life, about God, and about church. One of those things was the Lord’s Supper. I remember going to church, where once a month some broken pieces of bread were passed around on shiny plates and thimble-sized plastic cups of grape juice were distributed. The pastor would say, “The body of Christ, broken for you. Take and eat,” and, “The blood of Christ, shed for you. Take and drink.” I had no idea what he meant by eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood, but I went along with the program and I didn’t ask any questions.

Now that I’ve matured, I understand the Lord’s Supper better and I hope that you do, too. Yet I think that the taking of the Lord’s Supper isn’t understood by many. And this practice probably seems very bizarre to non-Christians. What are we doing when we take this little bit of food and this little bit of drink? Why do we do it? What does it all mean?

What is the Lord’s Supper? It’s one of two ordinances, sometimes called sacraments, that the church observes. The other is baptism. According to the Puritan, Thomas Watson, “The sacrament is a visible sermon. . . . The Word is a trumpet to proclaim Christ, the sacrament is a glass to represent him.”[1] Both the Lord’s Supper and baptism are visible sermons, pictures of what Jesus has done for us.

The Lord’s Supper presents a visible picture of the gospel, specifically Jesus’ substitutionary, atoning death. He died in our place, as our substitute, to atone for our sins. Yet there is more to the Lord’s Supper than this. The Lord’s Supper is based on the Last Supper, the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. At this meal, all the great themes of the Bible coalesce, for the Last Supper had associations with the past, present, and future. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is rooted in history; it affects our present; and it contains promises for our future.

Today, we’re returning to the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. We’re beginning chapter 22. Today, we’re going to look at the passages related to Jesus’ last Passover meal that he shared with his disciples before he died on the next day. Then, in the next sermon, I’ll look at the verses related to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.

So, we’ll begin with Luke 22:1, which says, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”[2]

What was the Passover? Let us review some Old Testament history.

In Genesis, God chose Abraham and his family as the people he would use to bless the world. At the end of Genesis, this family ends up in Egypt, where Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, is second in command. At the beginning of Exodus, something has changed. About 400 years have passed by and the Israelites have multiplied greatly, but they no longer find favor in the Egyptians’ eyes. Instead, the Egyptians oppress and enslave them. God looks upon them with compassion and, because of his covenant with Abraham, he prepares to deliver them through the ministry of Moses. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the Israelites go. Pharaoh refuses because of the hardness of his heart, so God hits the Egyptians with nine plagues. Pharaoh still refuses to let the Israelites go, so God sends a tenth and final plague.

This time, all the firstborn in Egypt will die. The first nine plagues did not affect the Israelites, but this time, in order to avoid the tenth plague, they must do something. They are to take male, year-old, unblemished lambs, slaughter them, and place some of their blood on their door frames. When God comes to kill all the firstborn in Egypt, he will pass over the houses of the Israelites because of the blood. God tells them to commemorate this occasion by roasting the meat of the lambs and eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are to do this with their belts fastened, their sandals on their feet, and their staffs in hand, because they will soon leave Egypt, for Pharaoh will now let them go. God tells them to keep this feast once a year to remember the event. The Passover is so important that God even tells them that the month of this event will now be the first month of their calendar year.

So, that’s what the Passover was. Now, I’m going to skip to verse 7. We’ll come back to verses 2–6 in the next sermon in this series. Here are verses 7–13:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” 10 He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters 11 and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” 13 And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.

Jesus is about to eat the Passover meal with his disciples. He sends two of his closest followers, Peter and John, to prepare this meal, which had to be eaten within the walls of Jerusalem.

It seems that Jesus has made prior arrangements to have the meal in an upper room. Peter and John would have had to prepare a lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs, the elements of the original Passover meal. Other elements were added over the years: a bowl of saltwater, a fruit puree or sauce, and four cups of diluted wine. Each element was very symbolic. The lamb reminded them of the sacrifice needed to be saved. The Israelites were sinners like the Egyptians, and the only way to be spared God’s judgment against sin was for someone to die in their place. The unleavened bread reminded them of God’s swift deliverance of his people—there wasn’t time for the bread to rise. The herbs reminded them of the bitterness of their slavery. The saltwater reminded them of tears shed in captivity as well as the Red Sea. The fruit paste reminded them of the clay used to make bricks for the Egyptians. And the four cups of wine symbolized the promises found in Exodus 6:6–7, that God would deliver them from slavery, that he would judge the Egyptians, that they would have a special relationship with God (“I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God”), and that they would know that he is “the Lord your God.”

Normally, a family would eat this meal together. Jesus chose to share it with his disciples. They had become his family. During the Passover meal, there would be a time when the host of the meal recalled the Passover narrative, explaining the redemptive history behind the feast and expressing thanksgiving. Listen to this statement from the collection of Jewish oral traditions known as the Mishnah. The parallels with our redemption should be obvious:

Therefore are we bound to give thanks, to praise, to glorify, to honour, to exalt, to extol, and to bless him who wrought all these wonders for our fathers and for us. He brought us out from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption, so let us say before him the Hallelujah.[3]

The celebration would include the singing of Psalms 113 through 118. After the fourth glass of wine, the meal would end, and the guests were supposed to spend the night in prayer.

Before we look at verses 14–20, allow me to make an observation. It is no coincidence that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. The Passover and the whole Exodus form the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament. There are numerous references to this event in the Old Testament as well as the New. You can find it mentioned throughout the historical books, there are several Psalms devoted to it, and the prophets refer to this event repeatedly. In short, the Exodus proved that God does mighty acts to save his people.

By connecting the Last Supper to the Passover, God is showing us the relationship between the greatest act of redemption in the Old Testament and the greatest act of redemption. He is showing us how his plan of redemption spans across the Old and New Testaments.

God is sovereign over history. He can make history do what he wants. Throughout history, he revealed himself and his plans gradually, through not only his word but also through people, events, and institutions that we find in the Old Testament. Certain events in the Old Testament anticipate greater events in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, we see certain types, or foreshadows, that anticipate the work of Jesus. We see certain people in the Old Testament that resemble Christ, but they are imperfect saviors, prophets, priests, and kings. We see acts of redemption in the Old Testament, but they do not conquer sin and death. We also see acts of judgment in the Old Testament, often coupled with those acts of redemption, though they are not the final judgment that will occur when Jesus returns to Earth. These types in the Old Testament taught the people of that time about God and gave them clues that greater events were going to occur in the future. For us, on this side of the cross, they provide a context for Jesus’ ministry, so that we can see how he fulfilled all the promises of God in the Old Testament.

Here are a few things we can learn, as Christians, from the Passover. One, it anticipated Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. We know this because the apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter tells us that we were ransomed from sin “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). The redemption of the Israelites out of Egypt was accomplished through a blood sacrifice. Though they were freed from slavery to the Egyptians, the Passover did not deal with their slavery to sin. No animal sacrifice could atone for human sin. Therefore, the Passover was an incomplete redemption and a mere foretaste of Jesus’ greater, perfect redemption.

Two, the Passover and the Exodus show us that God is powerful, that he performs amazing acts of redemption, and that he is to be feared. For those of you familiar with the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the image of Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, you know how powerful and frightening God can be. God is still a holy and jealous God. He is still a consuming fire. It is important that we still have that image of God.

Three, we see that God graciously saved his people even though they were sinful. The Israelites were often not any better than the people of other nations. God simply decided to be gracious to them. Their salvation was not based on their obedience and their goodness, and neither is ours.

Four, in Exodus, there is a phrase that God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exod. 7:15; 8:1, 20; 9:1). God freed the Israelites from the yoke of slavery to the Egyptians, but they were not rescued so that they could live for themselves. If you have faith in Christ, you are freed from slavery to sin, but you still have a master. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). We are freed from the yoke of sin in order to serve the King of kings and Lord of lords.

It’s important to understand the Passover and what it means for us. Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus shares this meal with his disciples. Let’s read verses 14–20:

14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. 18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Jesus wanted this last opportunity to teach his disciples the significance of his impending death. He knows he is about to die, and yet he is in complete control. In fact, his vague directions to Peter and John in the previous section were probably intentional: he wanted to make sure that Judas did not know the address of this upper room so that the meal would not be interrupted by a premature arrest. (We’ll talk more about this next time.)

Jesus is acting as host of the Passover meal, yet instead of recounting the Exodus story, he starts to teach them about the theological significance of his death. Jesus tells his disciples that he will not eat this meal again until “it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” He will not share in such a meal until the kingdom is consummated, when he returns.

Then, Jesus takes one cup and gives it to his disciples. This is probably either the first or second of the four cups of wine of the Passover meal. It is a common cup that he shares with his disciples, just as it is a common loaf of bread. This meal scene is one of intimacy and unity. It seems completely natural to read about people eating, but we must remember that Jesus is not just a man; he’s also God. God is eating with humans! God dwells among us and desires close fellowship with us. What an amazing idea!

In verse 18, Jesus says he “will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” The kingdom was inaugurated with Jesus’ first coming, but it will not come in its fullest form until he returns and recreates the universe to be Paradise. In this passage, Jesus twice refers to a future fulfillment of the kingdom of God. He wants his disciples to know that, even though he will die, death will not have the last word.

Then, Jesus takes the bread and gives it to his disciples. Here, Jesus begins to reinterpret the elements of the Passover meal in a radical way. The bread and the wine of the Passover meal will correspond to Jesus’ death.

Jesus takes the bread, a symbol of life and sustenance, and makes it a symbol of his death. Elsewhere, Jesus had called himself the bread of life (John 6:35, 48) because he is the source of eternal life. In order to impart that life to those who have faith in him, his body would have to be broken. Animals die so we can eat their flesh. Grain is crushed so that we can live. Even grapes were crushed so that their juice could be extracted and fermented. It is possible that the references to bread being broken and wine being poured out are references to a famous passage in Isaiah 53, one that we looked at two weeks ago. Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” A few verses later, we read, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isa. 53:10). God the Father had to pour out his wrath on someone, for sin must not go unpunished. God is a perfect judge. He cannot let evil go unchecked. But God is also gracious. He gave his Son to take the punishment that his people deserve. And willingly Jesus took that punishment in our place. He was crushed so that we don’t have to be. That was God’s will. It was always his plan.

Notice that Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Israelites were supposed to remember the Passover, but when they did, they didn’t just bring a past event to mind. Rather, they saw themselves as participants in the Exodus. In that way, it affected their present life. They also anticipated a future redemption that would come through the Messiah. For us, we should remember Jesus’ death, not in order simply to review history, but in order for our lives to be changed. We, too, should also look forward to Christ’s return, when he makes all things new.

We should also notice that, in saying, “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus isn’t saying, “Do this in order to be saved,” or, “Do this to receive more grace.” Catholics believe that the eucharist (their word for the Lord’s Supper) imparts grace and is a key part of salvation. But Jesus doesn’t say anything like that.

Finally, Jesus distributes the cup, which commentators agree corresponds to the third cup of the Passover meal. He says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The “pouring out” likely refers to Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” In the Bible, blood represents life (Lev. 17:11). In order to bear the sins of many, Jesus had to die in the place of many. Because of our sin, we should die eternally, yet Jesus took our sin and nailed it to the cross, so that we could be credited his righteousness. As it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

We also come to the important idea of the covenant. A covenant is a bit like a contract. It is a binding commitment that is made unilaterally, which is to say there is no negotiating. God sets the terms of the agreement and he faithfully keeps his end of the arrangement. There are many covenants in the Bible: ones made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, as well as the new covenant. The two covenants in view here are the “old covenant,” the one made through Moses at Mount Sinai, and the new covenant.

After God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with them. He said that if they obeyed him, then they would be his “treasured possession among all peoples” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (see Exod. 19:4–6). God then gave Moses and the Israelites the Ten Commandments as well as many other laws. This covenant was based on a condition: if the people obeyed those laws, then they would be God’s treasured possession.

After the law was given, a ceremony was held to inaugurate this covenant. In Exodus 24, Moses and the people offer animal sacrifices and Moses reads them the law. The people said they would obey the law. Then something very strange happens: Moses takes some of the blood of those animal sacrifices and threw it on the people. There are two important ideas behind this strange event: One, the people of Israel were God’s people because they were made clean from a blood sacrifice. Two, if they failed to obey the terms of the covenant, the result would be the shedding of blood—their blood! Most covenants began with blood, a reminder of the consequences of breaking that contract. And if that contract was broken, blood would be shed.

We know from the Old Testament that Israel was not perfectly obedient to God. In fact, they were often wildly disobedient. The same is true of all human beings. We often ignore God instead of living for him. We fail to love God as we should. We fail to love one another. We don’t do life on God’s terms; instead, we act as if were gods.

In the end, the old covenant simply didn’t work. There’s no way that mere human beings could obey its terms. Therefore, God would establish a new covenant. This was promised in Jeremiah 31:31–34, but there are other passages in the Old Testament prophets that speak of a new covenant. In short, the new covenant promised that all of God’s people would be forgiven of sin, would truly know God because they have a right relationship with him, and would have God’s laws written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God.

The new covenant is better than the old covenant. But that was by design. God’s plan is perfect. He knew his people could not obey the old covenant. God’s intention was to show that only one son person could ever obey that old covenant, and that person was Jesus. The only way the old covenant could be fulfilled was to have God become man and live a life of perfect obedience. He fulfilled the terms of the old covenant. But—and this is the amazing part—though he alone fulfilled those terms, he took on the penalty that covenant breakers deserve. He died on the cross to take away the penalty that we all deserve for our sin.

What Jesus is saying at this Last Supper with his disciples is basically this: “What I’m about to do is the key to God’s eternal plan of redemption. My blood sacrifice will pay the penalty of the old covenant for you, and my blood will usher in a new, fulfilled covenant. People who are part of this covenant will never pay for their sins. Your sins will be forgiven, and you will have new hearts.”

The fact that Jesus asks his disciples to do this in remembrance of him means that he expects that they will take it regularly after his death. We understand that the Lord’s Supper, which we take here once a month, is based on this Last Supper. It is a time to remember that Jesus died for our sins.

What does all of this mean for us? How does this affect our view of the Lord’s Supper? First, we should see how great Jesus is. I hope you now have a deeper understanding of just how central his life, death, and resurrection is to all of history, to God’s plans, and to your life. Jesus is the greatest. He is truly the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of history, and the author and goal of our faith.

Second, food in the Bible is often a symbol for spiritual sustenance. Of course, we need to eat food regularly to live. But we also have spiritual hunger and thirst, a longing for something that the things of this world cannot satisfy. Jesus is the only one who can satisfy the deepest yearnings of your soul. In John 6:27, Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Are you trying to fill your spiritual hunger with Jesus or something else? No money, no job, no other relationship, no amount of pleasures and entertainments will satisfy that spiritual hunger and thirst.

Third, though we’re not told this here, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for God’s people. It doesn’t automatically give you spiritual life. Only faith in Jesus gives you that. And faith in Jesus is trusting in him. That faith should lead to love of Jesus and obedience to him.

Fourth, we’re also told that elsewhere that the Lord’s Supper is a time to examine our lives. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” It’s a time for us to ask certain questions, like, “Do I know God? Am I living as his servant? Are there ways that I’m disobeying him? Do I have sins I need to repent of?” If you are not a Christian, I urge you to trust in Jesus. Faith in Jesus is the only way to be spared God’s judgment against your sin, your failure to love and live for God. If you’re not yet a Christian, I would love to talk to you personally about following Jesus. If you’re struggling with sin, I would love to help you in any way I can.

Fourth, the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper call us to be a community. Jesus shared a common cup and a common loaf with his disciples. Though we come to faith in Christ individually, when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we enter the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, Paul writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Are you an active part of the body of Christ? Are you using your spiritual gifts to serve the church? Or do you just come to consume a spiritual product and live life alone? God meant for us to be in relationship with him and with each other. I would encourage all of us to be more involved in the life of this church, to be more committed, to become members. Take ownership of this church. Regard it as your family.

My fifth and final point is this: The Last Supper looked backwards to the Passover. And it looked forward to when Jesus would not only die for his people, but also to when he would return to complete the establishment of God’s kingdom on Earth. The Lord’s Supper looks back to when Jesus died for us, but it also looks forward to when Jesus will return to make all things right. And when that happens, we who are Christians will eat a meal with God.

There are several places in the Bible where this new creation is pictured as a great meal. We read one of those passages, Isaiah 25, last week. God promised that in his new creation, there would be the finest of feasts. That could be a literal meal—which might be a comfort to those of us who love to eat—or it could symbolize the kind of fellowship that we cannot imagine right now. Either way, God will make all things new, he will eradicate death, and he will offer us the very best food and fellowship that we could ever hope for. At that time, we will commune directly with God. All his people, those who know him, those who have been forgiven of sin, those who have been given the Holy Spirit, will live forever in God’s house.

When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we remember what Jesus did for us: His body was broken and his life drained out so that we don’t have to be broken, so that we can live. And when we take the Lord’s Supper, we experience a foretaste of what will come in the future. We will eat and drink together in the presence of God. We can take the Lord’s Supper with seriousness, remembering that it cost nothing short of the death of the God-man, Jesus Christ, to rescue us from sin and eternal death. But we can also take it with thanksgiving and joy, knowing that God loves us so much that he gave us his Son, and that the Son laid down his life willingly for his people, to bring them back to the table in his house.

Notes

  1. Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Supper (1665; repr., Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2004), 1-2.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Pesahim 10.5, quoted in I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (1980; repr., Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2006), 22.

 

Do This in Remembrance of Me (Luke 22:1, 7-20)

What is the Lord’s Supper, or communion? Why do we take bits of bread and juice (or, in some churches, wine) and say that these are the body and blood of Christ? Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 22:1, 7-20 on January 5, 2020.

The Gospel according to Isaiah: A New Earth

All of us long for a good ending to our lives. We want to live in a better world, one that doesn’t end, one that doesn’t have evil, decay, and death. The good news is that the Bible promises such a world for those who have fixed their minds upon God. Brian Watson preached this message, based on various passages in Isaiah, on December 29, 2019.

The Gospel according to Isaiah: God with Us

A child, born of a virgin, is a sign that God is with his people and will save them. This Christmas Eve sermon, based on Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1, was given by Brian Watson on December 24, 2019.

My Servant

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 22, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading).

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” Or the song says. Are you feeling it this year? Does it feel wonderful and hap-happy?

When I was a child, I felt the thrill of “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that is. I used to love lights and music and Christmas movies and TV specials and special food and gifts. Especially the gifts. But as I get older, I find those things to feel a lot less special.

Yesterday, I saw a picture that someone posted online. It was of a dumpster that said “EMPTY WHEN FULL.” The joke, of course, was how can a dumpster simultaneously be empty and full? But perhaps that’s the way some of us feel at Christmas. We’re full of food, our lives are full of stuff, our schedules may be full, and our relatives may be full of it, but we feel empty.

For some people, the holidays remind them of what they’ve lost in the past year. The other day, I was writing Christmas cards to people. Two were to people who were now celebrating their first Christmas after the death of a spouse. Another was to someone who lost a spouse the previous year. One was to a couple that lost a child this year. The holidays can highlight what we have, but they can also highlight what we’ve lost.

Many people try to cover up that emptiness and loss. The message of secular Christmas celebrations is, “Be happy.” If you don’t feel happy, the key is to celebrate more, to buy more things, to spend more time with family. The holiday takes on this strange empty meaning. It’s not really about anything other than celebrating celebration, feasting on festiveness, an attempt to buy pieces of peace. It’s about nostalgia and sentimentality and the many dozens of ways that the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels can make Christmas romance movies out of the same basic plot.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Christmas lights, and some Christmas music. I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. I love getting presents. Occasionally, I enjoy spending time with family. It’s not that these things are bad. But I need more than that. I suspect that you do, too. If that’s all there is to Christmas, then it’s just the largest Hallmark holiday, a phony reason to celebrate for celebration’s sake.

Providentially, the real meaning of Christmas is not found in all those trappings. The meaning of Christmas is that God sent his ultimate servant to rescue us. This servant didn’t come to put a feel-good band aid of tinsel over our problems. He didn’t come to fill our emptiness with more food and drink and money. He came to heal us, which required getting to the root of our problems. God loves us so much that he didn’t send us a comedian or entertainer, a politician or a general, an economist or a get-rich-quick adviser. He didn’t manipulate our emotions. Instead, he gave us a Savior, his own Son.

Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus and what he has done for us by looking at passages from the book of Isaiah. We have been studying the Gospel of Luke, which is all about Jesus in a very direct way. But this month, we’re taking a look at some passages from a book about a prophet called Isaiah. God sent a message to his people through a man named Isaiah in the eighth century BC, roughly seven hundred years before Jesus was born. He gave them a message about who he is, what their problem was, and the hope that would come through one person, a special child, a descendant of King David. Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at who God is, our problems of sin and idolatry, and prophesies about a coming king. This week, we’ll look at passages about a servant of God.

The first one is Isaiah 42:1–7:

1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.[1]

God promised Israel that he would send his servant into the world. The Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) would rest upon this servant, empowering him. Though the servant has power, he would be gentle, especially with people who were “bruised reeds,” people who were beat up and knew they needed help. To those people, he would bring comfort. Though he’s gentle, he is strong, and he will work until he brings justice to the whole Earth.

Then, we’re told that the God who has made the whole universe, who gives life and breath to everyone on the Earth, says this about his servant: God will give this servant to his people as a covenant, which is kind of like a contract that establishes a relationship between two parties. The way that God and his people will be related will be through this servant. He will gather the remnant of Israel, God’s people, to himself. He will be a light to all the nations—people from across the globe will come to God through him. The people who are living in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2).

That is the first of four “servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. The next one is in the beginning of chapter 49. Let’s turn there now. Here is Isaiah 49:1–6:

1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Here, God’s servant is called from the womb of his mother. His words will be powerful: his mouth is like a sharp sword. He is called Israel. He is the one who will truly be God’s person. If you read the Old Testament, which is long and complicated, you’ll see that most of it is about a group of people, a nation, called Israel. And it doesn’t take much reading to see that these people are in many ways failures. They were supposed to live for God, worship him, represent him on Earth, and obey him. But they don’t worship God alone; they also worship false gods, which are called idols. They don’t obey God, living according to his commandments and laws. Instead, they often live like everyone else lives. They, like everyone else in the world, deserve condemnation, to be cut off from God forever.

But not this servant. He will be perfect. Yet at first his work will seem to be in vain. His work doesn’t always appear to have accomplished something great. But God said to this servant that he would bring his people back to God. He would be a light to the nations—this is the second time we’ve seen that. He would bring salvation to people throughout the world. That salvation is reconciliation with God. It’s a salvation from the condemnation that their sins have earned them. They will be saved from a broken relationship with God, from rebellion, and from all that comes with it, including death and condemnation. And this salvation will come through this servant.

The third song about this servant comes in the next chapter. Let’s look at chapter 50:4–11:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

10  Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11  Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:a
you shall lie down in torment.

The servant says that God has given him wisdom, a tongue that will sustain those who are weary. Again, this man has powerful words, words that not only can cut like a sharp sword, but words that can also heal.

This servant has his ear open to God. He listens to God. He does what God tells him to do. He is not rebellious. He is even obedient in the face of persecution. People will strike him, pull his beard, and spit on him. But this servant didn’t run away from such rough treatment. Because God strengthens him, he is able to face that affliction square on, setting his face like flint toward it. He knows that God will not let him be put to shame. No one will be able to say that he’s guilty. He will be vindicated.

This servant calls all who are living in darkness to come to him in the light, to fear the Lord and to obey his servant. As I said last week, the fear of the Lord isn’t necessarily being afraid of him. Though, if you’re on the wrong side of God, you should be afraid. But the fear of the Lord is having a very healthy, awestruck respect for God. If you know who God truly is, you will fear him, respect him, honor him. And if you do those things, his servant says, you will obey the voice of his servant. You will come to him, the light of the nations, instead of living in darkness. But those who remain in darkness, who think that they can light their own way with their own torches, will lie down in torment. In other words, those who trust that they can cure themselves, who can fix their greatest problem, which is a broken relationship with God and rebellion against him, will not only remain in darkness, but they will be punished.

If we can’t bring ourselves back to God, and if our efforts to do so result only in torment, how can we ever get back to God? As we’ve already seen, the key is the servant of God. But how does this servant make us in the right with God? How does he fix this problem of a broken relationship?

To answer those questions, we must look at the fourth and final song of the servant. This one begins at the end of chapter 52 and runs through all of chapter 53. Let’s first read Isaiah 52:13–15:

13  Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14  As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15  so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.

We’re told that God’s servant will be exalted. He will be high and lifted up. Yet though he’s exalted, his appearance will be marred. We must remember that this servant will be struck and beaten. He will be battered. But he will “sprinkle many nations.” That means he will cleanse many people, washing them from what defiles them, which, according to the Bible, is sin. His work will be so great that even kings will be rendered speechless by what he will do.

Let’s now look at chapter 53. We’ll read the first three verses:

1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

This servant will grow up like a root out of a dry ground, which means that he will be greater than his historical circumstances. His background on Earth will be humble. He won’t look majestic. He won’t look exceptionally beautiful. He will look rather ordinary.

But there’s something more. He will be despised and rejected. He will be a man who knows sorrow and grief. People will hide their faces from him. They will betray him and reject him. And we’re told even this: we esteemed him not. If we saw him on Earth, we would probably reject him.

This servant has a strange combination of qualities. He’s powerful, given strength by the Holy Spirit. He is wise and his words are powerful. They are able to condemn and save. God will be with him and he will not be put to shame. He will be vindicated and declared righteous. Yet he will also suffer and be rejected.

We’re also told that his suffering does something. He doesn’t suffer in some meaningless, pointless way. Look at verses 4–6:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This servant will bear our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities, or sins. Though we thought he was rejected by God, condemned and afflicted, the reality was that he was being condemned in our place. His suffering—his being pierced and crushed—was for our sake. He was crushed for our sins, not for his own. The condemnation—the chastisement—that we deserve fell upon him so that we could have peace with God. His wounds heal us. We were like sheep, going astray, wandering from God. Each one of us was like that. But God does something amazing. He takes our sin and lays it on his servant, who suffers in our place.

The reason that we feel empty is that we were made to have a relationship with God. Because that relationship is broken, we have a God-shaped hole within us. We were made to love God and worship him and obey him. But instead of going to God to have that hole filled, we try to fill it up with other stuff, often with things that aren’t necessarily bad. But those things, even good things, weren’t made to fill that hole. So, we’re empty when full. We’re not full of God, but things he made, thinking that we can be satisfied by the gifts instead of the Giver. As Augustine wrote over sixteen hundred years ago: “You [God] stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[2] He might have said our hearts are empty until they are filled by God. Until then, we’re a bunch of dumpsters.

Yet this servant is the one who was treated like trash. Look at verses 7–9:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;|
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

He was afflicted, beaten, led to die. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to escape this fate. He was like a sheep led to slaughter. He was cut off from the land of the living, paying for the sins of God’s people. He died among wicked people, and his body was laid in the tomb of a rich man, even though he never did anything wrong. He never did violence to other people. He never said anything deceitful. He only told the truth. He was never selfish. He only loved God and other people. Yet he still was treated like garbage.

But this wasn’t an accident, or just the result of the works of evil people. Look at verses 10–12:

10  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

This servant suffered because it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. His suffering was an offering for our guilt.

But there’s good news. Even though this servant is crushed and afflicted, led to slaughter, killed and laid in a grave, he will see his days prolonged. He will see his offspring. He will be satisfied. This servant, though he is killed, will live. He will make many to be accounted righteous. He will take away their sin and make them in the right with God. He will also live to intercede for sinners, to go between God and them, to lift them up in prayers to God.

Of course, these servant songs are all about Jesus. He alone is the One sent by God to be a light to the world. He alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. He alone was sent to bear the sins of his people.

Jesus is not just a servant. He is the Son of God. He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are the triune God. But he was sent by the Father to become a human being in a “dry ground,” in humble circumstances. Though he was and is all-powerful, he looked like an ordinary human being. He was conceived in a miraculous way—by a virgin—but otherwise, his background was rather ordinary. He was a carpenter’s son. He grew up in a small town, away from the capital city. He didn’t act like the rulers of the Earth, trying to appear powerful, using their power to their own advantage. He was humble.

He lived the perfect life. He was never rebellious toward God the Father. He perfectly loved, honored, and obeyed God. Yet he was rejected by the very people who should have known who he is. He was mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This was because people are evil, and they did an evil thing to him. But ultimately, it was God’s plan to have him killed. And it was Jesus’ plan; he laid down his life voluntarily. He did this to take away our sin. Strangely, his death is his victory and exaltation. How is Jesus “high and lifted up”? On the cross!

Not only did Jesus die, but he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again. His resurrection showed that he has power over sin and death, that his sacrifice paid the penalty for sin in full, and that his people, though they will die in this life, will be resurrected to eternal life. He lives to see people come to faith in him, and he intercedes for those people. He prays for them. He is their advocate.

This is the message of Christmas. God sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sin, to make atonement for their sin, to receive the penalty they deserve.

This message is hard to receive. A lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like it because it says that we are bad, that we have done wrong, that we deserve condemnation, and that we can’t fix ourselves. But that’s the truth. Evil isn’t just something that’s “out there.” It’s within us, and we can’t remove it from ourselves. As the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[3]

But Jesus came to take away our sin and our guilt. He came to be destroyed in our place. He also came to give us new hearts, to give us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the strength to live the way that we should, to cause us to love God and obey him.

But notice that in that last song, the servant only takes away the sins of God’s people. He bore the sin of many—not all. He causes many—not all—to be accounted righteous. Not everyone benefits from the work of Jesus.

How do we have become part of God’s people, so that our sins are removed from us and we are put int the right with God? We need to see that our own torches can’t remove our darkness. Our own attempts to feel good will fail, often because they are only superficial. Only Jesus can get to the root of our problems and dig them out.

Recently, I had surgery to repair a hernia. The hernia itself wasn’t as bad as it could be. I couldn’t see a visible bulge. I wasn’t bent over in pain. But it was uncomfortable, and the fact is that once a hernia starts, it doesn’t get better on its own. If left alone, it would get worse. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening, though mine wasn’t.

I recognized that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix. So, I found a doctor who could fix me. I actually saw a couple of doctors who didn’t accurately diagnose the problem. But my surgeon did, he told me he could fix it, and I said I wanted that. So, on December 12 I went to the hospital and had the surgery.

Having surgery is a strange thing. You are yielding control of your body to others. They tell you to take off all your clothes and put them in a bag. They give you a little apron to wear and little socks. You lie on a bed, and they put an IV in you. And you wait. Then, when it’s your time, they wheel you around on that bed and bring you to the operating room.

It’s so strange to be wheeled around in a bed. Usually, when we get in bed, the bed stays where it is. So, it’s odd to lie in a bed that’s moving. And it’s odd to be pushed around, at least when you don’t normally have that done for you. I could have walked to the operating room, but I wasn’t in control. I realized I couldn’t fix myself. I had to give control over to those who could fix me.

Then, they knock you out and the surgeon does his work. I didn’t fully understand the surgery, but I didn’t need to. I only had to trust that the surgeon could fix me. I had to have faith in his understanding and skill, not in my own.

After surgery, things felt worse. I’ve improved and I will continue to heal, but the healing doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes, in order to be made well, we have to feel worse for a while.

And all of this is a lot like salvation. If we understand that we have a problem we can’t fix, and that Jesus alone is the Great Physician who can fix us, we put our trust in him. We yield control of our lives to him. And it might feel like weakness. But what it is is simply facing reality. We are not in control. We can’t fix ourselves.

We don’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be fixed. We don’t need to know everything about how that salvation works. We simply need to put our trust in Jesus. And when he fixes us, it may feel worse at first. Or, it may feel like instant relief, or perhaps a little bit of both. But Jesus promises to be with us as we heal, and he gives us the Spirit to strengthen us.

Jesus’ work isn’t finished. Justice has not been established across the whole Earth. But he makes us right with God if we come to him in faith. If we do that, we will listen to the servant of God’s voice and obey him. And if we do that, we will find our lives changed.

I urge us all to put our trust in Jesus. Only he can make us right with God. Only he can remove the cancer of sin, taking away our shame and guilt. Only he can give us eternal life. Everything else that we try to make us right is just a band aid. Jesus gets to the root of our problem. Let’s turn to him this Christmas.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
  3. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75.

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah: My Servant

The food, music, decorations, and gifts that we experience at Christmas are nice, but they often leave us feeling empty. We need more than celebration and feasting to be well. Fortunately, God gave us his servant, Jesus (God’s Son and the anointed King of Israel), to heal us. We can learn more about Jesus by looking at some passages in Isaiah, who prophesied about God’s servant and what he would do. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 22, 2019.

A Son Is Given

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 15, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.

Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.

It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.

Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?

I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.

Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.

Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.”[1] You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.”[2] We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?

And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.

But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.”[3] There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer.[4] How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?

And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.[5]

We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.

This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.

If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.

This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.

The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.

Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:

1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.

The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.

The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.

He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.

He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.

Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.

Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.

This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.

The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.

If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.

We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?

Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.

These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.

We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.

At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.

Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.

And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.

And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.

You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year.[6] You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.

The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.

But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.

But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.

The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.

Notes

  1. https://ergofabulous.org/luther.
  2. After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41.
  3. Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2.
  4. Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian.
  5. Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny.
  6. See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah(P

This sermon was preached on December 8, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

What’s wrong with the world? A lot of people have opinions about what is wrong with the world. In our highly politicized environment, the quick answer might be, “Republicans,” or “Democrats.” Or, perhaps more specifically, people might say, “Donald Trump,” or “Nancy Pelosi,” depending on their political leanings. Bernie Sanders might say “corporate greed” or refer to the “one percent.” Others might not have a specific person or people group in mind, but they may refer to general problems, perhaps environmental ones like climate change or the amount of plastic in our oceans. Six years ago, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”[1]

What do you say? Perhaps you’re not worried about the whole world. Perhaps the question you would like to answer is, “What’s wrong with my world?” Your answer might be your health, or your spouse’s health, or a problematic relationship, or your boss, or not enough money, or someone or something else.

There’s a story that in the early twentieth century, The Times of London asked some prominent authors that question, “What’s wrong with the world?” As you can imagine, they received various answers. The shortest they receive was from the witty and insightful Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton. His response was:

Dear Sirs,

I am.

Sincerely yours,

G. K. Chesterton[2]

Why would he write that? Just to be funny? No, Chesterton answered that way because he realized that the problem in the world wasn’t one outside of him. It wasn’t a matter of pointing the finger at someone else, or some other group of people. He realized that what was wrong with the world was something inside of him, and inside of everyone else, too.

Today, we’re going to talk about what that something is. Last week, we started a teaching series that will run this month. We’re looking at one book of the Bible, the second longest book (according to chapter numbers), a book from the Old Testament called Isaiah, named after one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Isaiah was given a job by God over twenty-seven hundred years ago: to tell the people of Israel to turn back to God, to tell them about punishment that would come upon them and the world because of sin, and to tell them a message of good news. One day, God’s people will be delivered from all that is wrong with the world. There will healing for broken people and a broken world.

We’ll look at various passages from the book of Isaiah today. We’ll begin with Isaiah 5:1–7:

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry![3]

This is the story of Israel, but it’s also the story of the world. If you want to know a tip for how to understand the Bible, it’s this: There are three big stories within the Bible. The first one is the story of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating a world out of nothing, and it ends with God restoring that world, creating a new world that is perfect. Within that big story, there’s another story, the story of Israel, which parallels that greater story. God called one old man, Abraham, and he told him that he would bless the whole world through him (Gen. 12:1–3). And that one old man and his old wife, Sarah, miraculously who had a child, who had children, who had children, who became Israel. And they ended up in Egypt, where they grew rapidly in number but became slaves. God rescued them from slavery by sending plagues upon Egypt, the greatest nation of the world at that time. And eventually he brought them into their own land.

In the passage that we just read, God poetically likens that land to a vineyard. He took a fertile ground, cleared out any stones, built a watchtower and a wine vat, and then he planted his vine in it. That’s a way of saying he planted Israel in their own land, a good land. And the language of the vineyard echoes the language of the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God planted the first human beings in a fertile ground.

And what does God expect of his people? He expects them to bear good fruit. He expects them to live in a certain way. He expected them to worship him, to recognize his greatness and reflect that greatness to the world. He expected them to love him, to be thankful to him, and to obey him. He expected them to love because he is love. He expected them to live righteously, to do justice, to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God expected that of the first human beings. He expected that of Israel. And he expects that of us.

But the passage says that God looked for good fruit, for good grapes, and he only found bad fruit, sour, wild grapes. Again, this is a metaphor. The people of Israel were not living the way they should. And just like God evicted Adam and Eve from his garden because they didn’t live according to his terms, God was warning Israel that they would be evicted from their land if they didn’t start living for God. And the reality is that Israel would be removed from their land, at least for a time. And this is our story, too. The reason that we sense problems in our world is that we have been removed from God’s garden, from the paradise that he prepared for us. Humanity has been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The world, as it is, is not our home. That’s why we don’t feel at home. Whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to be back home, to be with God in the world as he intended it to be.

You may wonder, “What kind of bad fruit did Israel produce?” What does it look like to live contrary to God’s expectations? Isaiah gives us a picture of that. Let’s go to the first chapter in the book. Here is Isaiah 1:2–4:

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.

The heart of living against God’s design, the heart of what we call sin, is relational. We were made to have a relationship with God. And God says that the problem with Israel is that though they were his children and he raised them, they rebelled against them. Animals know their master, but Israel didn’t know its own maker. In fact, God says that they despised him! Their failure to love God, to acknowledge God as Creator and King, led them to “deal corruptly.”

Yet the Israelites thought that they could ignore God, fail to live for him, and then occasionally go through the religious motions, “worshiping” him. But God says that such worship is no worship at all. Look at Isaiah 1:12–17:

12  “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?|
13  Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14  Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15  When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17  learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

Israel tried to do their religious business as usual, bringing their offerings to God, observing their festivals, praying to God. But God says that he hates their festivals and though they pray to him, he will not listen. Their hands are full of blood! Why? It seems that they were doing evil instead of good. They were oppressing people who were vulnerable. Israel had laws in place to care for orphans and widows, and apparently the people were not obeying those laws. There’s a famous verse, Isaiah 29:13, where God says,

. . . this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.
God doesn’t want mere lip service. God wants our hearts. And if we love him, we will obey him.

Now look at verses 21–23:

21  How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,|
but now murderers.
22  Your silver has become dross,|
your best wine mixed with water.
23  Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

That’s some tough talk. Why is Israel called a whore? Because she hasn’t been faithful to God. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. God’s people are supposed to love God and be faithful to him. That means that they shouldn’t worship other gods. When they failed to acknowledge who God truly is, when they failed to make him the most important thing in their lives, the object of their worship, the one who determines how they live, then they were cheating on God. They did not do justice. Their leaders were corrupt, bought and sold, being bribed. Instead of observing the laws about the orphan and they widow, they oppressed those vulnerable people. Later, God, will say that the leaders “devoured the vineyard” (Isa. 3:14) and “crush[ed] my people, by grinding the face of the poor” (Isa. 3:15).

In chapter 5 of Isaiah, after that passage about the vineyard that we read earlier, we’re told that people “join[ed] house to house” and “field to field,” probably by taking properties away from the poor (Isa. 5:8). Israel had laws that required debt forgiveness at various times, and those laws were probably ignored. People rose “early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink” (Isa. 5:11). The Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol, but it does prohibit getting drunk, which causes someone to lose control. That chapter also features these words, in found in Isaiah 5:20–23:

20  Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22  Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23  who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!

What was true then is true now: we often mistake what is good for evil, and what is evil for good. Our standard of what is good and evil should be God. Our knowledge of what is good and evil is often found in our conscience, but we can’t rely on our own moral compasses, because they are often not working correctly. Our knowledge of good and evil should come from the Bible, but we often ignore it. We think we know better than God.

That kind of ignoring of God, and thinking that we know better than God, is rebellion against him. Isaiah 29:16 says,

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

God has made us. We are the clay, and he is the potter. But our tendency is to get things backwards. We make God in our image, and we reject the true God. We don’t trust that he is wiser than we are.

But God issues this warning to his “clay.” This is Isaiah 45:9–10:

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10  Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”

There’s much more that can be said about our sin again God, and our rebellion against him. But this talk of clay and the potter leads to something else that’s at the heart of sin. Earlier, I said that the heart of sin is a relational problem. We don’t love and honor God as we should. Because of that, we don’t pay attention to him and we don’t obey him—certainly not as we should. And all of that leads to something else that’s at the heart of our sin, our rebellion against God. And that is idolatry.

Idolatry is making something other than God, something that is created, not the Creator, something finite, not infinite, something that had a beginning, not something eternal, and making that thing the center of our lives. An idol is a false god. It’s whatever we love the most. It’s what we trust will make us happy, complete, whole. It’s what we think will give us comfort and security. We don’t have to think of it as an object of worship. We probably don’t think of it as a god. But whatever is at the center of our lives is our god. We were made to worship. We inherently religious. And if we fail to worship the true God, someone or something else will fill that void.

Isaiah has one of the classic passages about idolatry. Turn to Isaiah 44:9–20:

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.

12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”

18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

This passage points out the foolishness of idolatry. It imagines something fashioning a piece of wood into some kind of statue or figure of a false god. Half of the food is used for fuel, for warmth and to bake bread. And then they take the other half and make a god to worship, saying “deliver me” to it. This is what idolatry is like.

Now, many people today would conclude that people in the ancient world were just foolish. How stupid can you be to worship something like that? But we’re not really different.

Years ago, I saw a video clip of a comedian on one of the late-night talk shows, and he was saying we have the greatest technology ever, and it’s wasted on the worst generation ever. He said that we’re always complaining about our phones. If you have a smart phone, you have one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever, a little computer, camera, and phone that can do what previous generations never thought possible. And what’s it made out of? Plastic, glass, some bits of metal. When the phone works, you can be become glued to it. We put our faith in technology to make our lives better, to deliver us. But what if it stops working? Then it’s just a bit of trash. The thing we’ll pay hundreds of dollars for now will be useless later.

That’s sort of what Isaiah is getting at here. It’s foolish to make something that will later be junk the center of your life, because the reality is it’s not a smart phone. It’s dumb. It has no personality, no will. It didn’t design and make itself. It didn’t create the world and it can’t remake it. It can’t save you. It can’t deliver you from your greatest problem, which is, in the words of Isaiah, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).

We make idols because we can control them. We are their potter, and they are our clay. We don’t want to come under God’s authority. We want to be gods. Idols make demands on us, but we somehow think those demands are not as hard as God’s. Instead of realizing that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30), we think there’s an easier way, a better way. But it’s not better. God allows us to go after those idols, but they don’t lead to salvation. They lead to death.

All of that is bad news. Yes, there is a problem in the world, and that problem isn’t just outside of us, it’s in us. We’re part of the problem. So, how do we fix it?

Part of the problem is that we can’t fix the problem. Isaiah 64:5–6 says,

Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

We can’t save ourselves. We are unclean, tainted by the power of sin, by the folly of idolatry. Even our best acts, the ones we consider righteous, are polluted by sin. We do good things often for selfish reasons, not to honor God. So, if we can’t fix the problem, who can?

The good news is that God can, and, if we turn to God, he will. Earlier, we read some verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. I intentionally left out a few. Here is what Isaiah 1:18–20 says:

18  “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19  If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20  but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God promised Israel that he would make them clean. He would make them “white as snow,” “like wool.” He would remove their sins. But they had to be willing. They had to repent. This salvation is offered freely. It’s a gift that must be received in faith.

Isaiah 55:1–7 says,

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah says, “Come and eat, come and drink. You don’t need money! Do this and live. Seek God while he can he found. If you do this, forsaking your wicked ways, God will have compassion on you. He will forgive your sins.”

How does God cleanse unclean people from their sin? Why does he forgive them? How is it that this offer is free, without price?

The answer is Jesus. I’ll say much more about him over the next two weeks. We’ll hear that he is the promised child who would be born, the Son who is also God (Isa. 9:6–7). As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, he became a human being. This is the miracle of Christmas: God became man (without ceasing to be God). The third story of the Bible, the one that fulfills those other stories, is about Jesus. Jesus became a man so that he could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He does what we should do but don’t. He always loved, honored, and worshiped God the Father. He had no idols. He wasn’t polluted by sin. Yet though he was perfect, he was treated like a criminal, like the worst of rebels. He died on a cross, an instrument of shame, torture, and death. This wasn’t an accident. It was God’s plan to punish sin. Jesus takes the punishment that we all deserve. He takes the death penalty for sin away from all who seek him, who turn to him in faith, who are willing to put away their idols and their wicked ways and follow him. This is all a gift. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first or earn this from God. We simply have to receive it in faith, trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything needed to put us back into a right relationship with God.

I’ll say more about him over the next two weeks. And I’ll say more about God’s plans to restore the world at the end of the month. But I do want to say now that Isaiah foresaw a day when people would cast away their idols. After Isaiah called Israel “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9), he said,

Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him (Isa. 30:18).

And he says to those who come to God, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).

Isaiah also told of a day when the world would become a garden again, when the “wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15). He predicted that a new creation would come, where God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). He predicted that God’s people would go back home, to be with God in a perfect world.

The only way back to God and that world is Jesus. I urge us all to trust in him, to know more about him, to know more about the Bible, which is his word. You can do that by reading all of Isaiah for yourself. This sermon and the other sermons in this series will be on our website, at wbcommunity.org/isaiah. You can find links to some great videos about the book, made by The Bible Project. All of us can know about the one true God. The clay can truly know its potter. The question is whether or not we are willing. As far as it is within your power, seek God while he can be found.

Notes

  1. Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Repubblica, October 1, 2013, https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce.
  2. Marva J. Dawn, “Not What, but Who Is the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75.
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah, Part 2 (Sin and Idolatry)

In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.

The Gospel according to Isaiah, Part 1

During times of turmoil and uncertainty, we need to recover a “big view” of God. The prophet Isaiah tells us who God is and why he created us. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on December 1, 2019.

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on November 17, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Does anyone know what’s going to happen tomorrow? How about next year?

A lot of people make claims about the future. People make predictions about sports, about which team will win today or which team will win the championship. People make predictions about the economy, whether the market will rise or fall. People make political predictions: who will win next year’s election. Whose predictions can we trust?

Generally, we trust predictions made about the future if predictions about the past have come true. That’s how science often works. Scientists come up with hypotheses about how the natural world works, then they make predictions based on those hypotheses. If experimentation and observation prove that the predictions are true, then those hypotheses become theories. Those theories could always turn out to be false, but we trust that things in physics, chemistry, and biology will work tomorrow the way that they have worked today.

But not everything that happens tomorrow can be predicted by science. Some events are singular and can’t be predicted scientifically. Human behavior, for example, isn’t always predictable. Divine behavior—what God will do tomorrow and beyond—isn’t always predictable. Yet people make predictions about the future, so how do we know if we should trust them?

We generally can’t know ahead of time if a prediction is correct, but we tend to listen to people who make predictions if they have a history of making correct predictions. If a political commentator has correctly predicted who will win elections, you will probably listen to their predictions regarding the next election. If a sports commentator has correctly predicted who will win this week’s games or the next championship, you’ll think their predictions for this week and this year might be good guesses. But we don’t expect these people to predict the future perfectly.

But what do we do when it comes to the things of God? Science can’t address much of the issues related to God. He is spirit, an immaterial being, so we can’t detect his activity scientifically. Does that mean we can’t know the truth about God? I think we can know the truth about God, but science won’t get us there. To know God, we need to have him reveal himself to us. Of course, many different religions claim that they have received a revelation from God. They say very different things about God, the universe, human beings, and how we can have a right relationship with God. These different religions can’t all be true. Are any of them true? How can we know?

One way to test a religion is to see if its alleged revelation matches up with history. Is there any archaeological evidence that lines up with what that religion’s holy book claims? Did the predictions made by that religion’s prophets turn out to be true?

When we test Christianity, it comes out well. For example, though not all of the Bible’s historical claims are backed by archaeological evidence, I believe that none of its claims are refuted by archaeological evidence, and every time a new discovery is made, it supports what the Bible says. Also, prophecies about the future are made in the Bible, and we can see if those prophecies have come to pass. Not all religions can say as much. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed that a temple would be built in Independence, Missouri within a generation. Yet that generation died before a temple was built there. His prediction was wrong.[1]

On the other hand, Jesus, who was a prophet (and King and Son of God), made predictions regarding what would happen within a generation. And his predictions came true. Specifically, he predicted that Jerusalem and its temple would be destroyed within a generation. He made this prediction either in the year 30 or, possibly, 33. (Many of the writings of the Bible are difficult to date with great precision because ancient writers didn’t provide specific dates for the events about which they wrote. But the details of Jesus’ life are such that the details of the week of his death can fit with either the year 30 or 33.) The three Gospels that record these predictions were most likely written sometime between the late 50s and mid-60s. Then, beginning in the year 66, Jewish people in Palestine rebelled against the Roman Empire, the world’s greatest superpower and the occupying force of Judea. Rome responded by destroying Jerusalem and its temple, slaughtering many Jews in the year 70. So, Jesus’ prediction, made forty years earlier (the length of a generation according to the Bible; Num. 32:13), was true. Since the Bible says that the test of a true prophet is that he speaks the truth (Deut. 18:22), that means that Jesus is a true prophet, and that we should take Jesus at his word. And Jesus predicted a greater future event: he said that one day he would come again to the Earth, this time to judge everyone who has ever lived and to recreate the world. The destruction of Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago foreshadowed that greater day of judgment, which will come in the future. To be spared judgment, we need to respond to Jesus.

Today, we’re looking at a lengthy section of the Gospel of Luke. We’ll be reading Luke 21:5–38. Most people think this is entirely about what hasn’t come to pass yet, the “end times,” as they’re often called. I think that’s wrong, as I’ll show when I explain the text. Some people think it’s entirely about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70. I think that’s very possible. But I think the best reading is that though this passage is primarily about the destruction of Jerusalem and specifically the temple, that event foreshadows the end of the world as we know it.

One more note before I start reading this passage: Today’s sermon may feel a bit like a history lecture. But I think it’s important to know history, and it’s important to know that Christianity is an historical religion. It is based on historical events, events that are recorded even outside of the Bible. This is one of the ways that we know Christianity is true.

So, without further ado, let’s begin reading. We’ll start by reading verses 5–7:

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”[2]

This is probably Thursday morning, the day before Jesus will be crucified. He and his disciples are in the temple complex in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea, the holy city of the Jews, and the temple was the religious, political, and symbolic center of their world. It was the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover, when Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire would come to Jerusalem, to worship at the temple.

It’s hard to stress how important the temple was to the Jewish people. It was where God dwelled among them, where they worshiped, where sacrifices for their sins were offered. God told the Israelites to build a tabernacle, a portable temple, about fourteen hundred years earlier. During the reign of Solomon, a temple was built in Jerusalem. That temple was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians, because the Jewish people had been unfaithful to God. They worshiped idols and refused to obey God, so God used a foreign nation to judge them.

This was the second temple, which was built in 515 BC, but was substantially renovated by Herod beginning in 20 or 19 BC Most of the work on the building was finished within a decade, but ornamental details were worked on until about AD 63 or 64. The temple was one of the most impressive buildings in the middle east. Herod increased the Temple Mount to an area the size of thirty-five football fields. The retaining walls of the temple were made of huge, heavy stones. “In the 1990s an archeological exploration of the temple foundations revealed a large stone . . . that was 42 x 14 x 11 feet in size and estimated to weigh 600 tons.” Two other stones they found were 40 and 25 feet long.[3] The temple was covered with gold plates that shone so brightly in the sun that people were nearly blinded. This would have been the most impressive site that people living in that area had ever seen.

When some of Jesus’ disciples comment on how impressive the building is, Jesus says the whole thing will be torn down. He doesn’t give the reason why this will happen here, but elsewhere he says it is a judgment by God against a largely unfaithful Jewish people. Also, the time of the temple was about to be over. Jesus, the true temple of God, was about to offer himself up as the only sacrifice needed for sin. Jesus’ words must have shocked his disciples. So, they ask him when this would happen, and what sign would occur before this would take place. This is very important, so I’ll repeat it. Jesus has said that the temple will be destroyed, and his disciples ask when that will happen. This is primarily what this passage is about.

Jesus starts to answer that question in verses 8–19:

And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.

First, Jesus tells his disciples that the time leading up to the temple of the destruction would be one full of people trying to deceive them, claiming that they are the Messiah. We know that there were several people in the first century who claimed to be the Messiah, so this prediction came true.[4] Second, Jesus says there would be wars and rumors of wars. These things happen all the time, so the disciples shouldn’t be worried about such things. There was a war between Rome and Parthia in 36 and a local war between Herod Antipas and the Nabatean king Aretas in 36 and 37.[5] And the war between the Romans and the Jews started in 66. Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when he says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” But the “end,” the destruction of the temple, was still to come.

Third, says that there would be earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. Again, these things happen all time. There was a large famine during the reign of the emperor Claudius, between roughly 45 and 48 (predicted by the prophet Agabus in Acts 11:28).[6] There were several major earthquakes between 33 and 70, including earthquakes in Antioch (37), Phrygia (53), Asia Minor (61), and Jerusalem (67).

Fourth, Jesus says there will be signs in heaven, probably something to do with stars. Beyond what the New Testament tells us, much of what we know of first-century Palestine comes from Flavius Josephus, a Jew who was a leader of the rebellion in Galilee. He was captured by the Romans and would eventually write histories of this time. Josephus says that during the time when Judea was at war with the Roman Empire, comets were visible for a year and a star that looked like a sword appeared over Jerusalem.[7]

Fifth, Jesus tells the disciples that they would be handed over to civic and religious authorities. We know from the book of Acts that the disciples appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council in Jerusalem, and were flogged (Acts 5:27–42). Stephen and James were martyred (Acts 7:58; 12:2). In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul describes getting flogged and beaten (vv. 23–25), probably by leaders of local synagogues. And Paul appeared before various governors and kings (Acts 18:12–17; 23:23–24:27; 24:27–26:32). All of this would happen before the temple was destroyed.

Normally, we would think that people being killed simply because they’re Christians is a bad thing, but Jesus says that something good will come out of this. When the disciples stand before various religious and civil leaders, they will have an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. We see that happen most clearly with the disciples in the books of Acts. The disciples were beaten in Jerusalem, but not before proclaiming Jesus (Acts 5:27–32). Stephen gave a long speech in Acts 7 before being killed. Paul used his appearances before various leaders to proclaim Jesus.

Here, Jesus tells the disciples, “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Some people misuse this passage to say that we should never think about how to tell people the news of Christianity, or how to answer their questions about and objections to our faith. But think about the context: Jesus is telling his disciples what will happen to them between roughly the years 30 and 70. And, furthermore, he’s telling them not to think about how to answer during times of persecution. He promises them to give them wisdom during those times of great pressure. In those situations, it might be very difficult to say anything, and God will give his people the words to say. But we shouldn’t use this passage as an excuse not to prepare for evangelism. Elsewhere in the New Testament, the apostle Peter tells us, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15). I think Christians gravitate towards this passage in Luke because they don’t read passages in the Bible in context and because we’re lazy. There’s no excuse for not knowing the Bible, not knowing what the central message of the Bible is, and not knowing how to communicate to people who don’t believe what we believe. Just as I don’t fail to prepare a sermon and say, “Well, God will give me the words to say on Sunday morning,” we shouldn’t fail to prepare to tell people the truth about God.

Jesus also says, in those verses we read earlier, that family will be divided. “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.” Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace to all people, but to bring division. He said that family members would be divided because some would respond to him and others would not (Luke 12:51–53). That happened then, and it happens today, especially in areas of the world where there is great persecution against Christians. In this past week’s prayer list that we publish, there was a story from the Voice of the Martyrs about an Egyptian woman who converted from Islam to Christianity. Her own father and brother beat her and tried to kill her.

Jesus doesn’t sugar-coat things here. He says that persecution will come to his followers. Some will even die. But, strangely, he says that not one of their hairs will perish. He can’t mean that literally. He must mean that even if they should die for their faith, they will not ultimately be harmed. The worst that someone can do to them is kill them. They can kill the body, but not the soul (Luke 12:4–7). Those who endure in their faith, even through persecution, will be saved. Real faith allows a person to survive even death.

Now that Jesus has told his followers what will happen before Jerusalem and its temple is destroyed, he starts to talk about what will happen when the Roman Empire surrounds the city and destroys it. Let’s read verses 20–24:

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

There had always been conflict between the Jews and the Roman Empire, who took control of Palestine in 63 BC. Eventually, the conflict would come to a head in AD 66. In 70, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. This war left untold numbers dead. Josephus tells us that over 600,000 died from starvation in the city and that some people resorted to eating the dung of cattle (Jewish Wars 5.569–571). Even more disturbing, he reports that some women ate their own children (Jewish Wars 6.201–212). This is what would happen when a foreign army came in and besieged a city. They would cut off escape from the city by building siege works. Because this type of battle took a long time, the conquered city would run out of food and people would starve. Josephus tells us that 1.1 million Jews died and 97,000 were taken captive (Jewish Wars 6.420). Some people believe Josephus exaggerated numbers, but even if he did, the destruction in this war was great. According to D. A. Carson, “There have been greater numbers of deaths—six million in the Nazi death camps, mostly Jews, and an estimated twenty million under Stalin—but never so high a percentage of a great city’s population so thoroughly and painfully exterminated and enslaved as during the Fall of Jerusalem.”[8]

When Jesus says that Jerusalem “will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled,” he could mean that Romans—the Gentiles—would thoroughly crush the city. I think that’s the most natural way to read this passage. Others think that Jesus is pivoting to talk about his return. In Romans, the apostle Paul says that many Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus in the future, but only after “the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25). That’s a hard to understand passage, just as elements of this passage in Luke are hard to understand. But it seems that prior to Jesus’ return, a large number of ethnically, or biologically, Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus. Jesus could be referring to that reality here.

Most commentators believe that the next few verses are about Jesus’ return to Earth. If you don’t know the Christian story, Jesus will die the day after he says these things. He will be crucified, killed as an enemy of the Roman Empire, not because he did anything wrong, but because it was ultimately God’s plan to have the sin of his people punished. Because we have rebelled against God, in a far worse way than the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire, we deserve death. But God has graciously given us a way to escape his wrath and have our sins punished. If we put our trust in Jesus, if we believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done, we are forgiven. But Jesus didn’t just die to pay the penalty for our sins. He rose from the grave on the third day in a body that can never be destroyed. And shortly thereafter, he ascended into heaven, where he is right now. But he will come someday in the future, to judge the living and the dead. And Jesus is probably talking about that in verses 25–28:

25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

I think it’s possible that Jesus is actually talking about the destruction of the temple as his vindication. He says that people will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.” That’s a reference to something written in the Old Testament book Daniel, when the prophet Daniel sees a vision of a “Son of Man” coming to “the Ancient of Days” to receive dominion, glory, and a kingdom. We understand that this means Jesus, the Son of God, comes to God the Father to receive that kingdom, and he did this after ascending to heaven. Notice that in this passage in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say where “the Son of Man” comes. Is he coming to Earth or to the Father? It could be that Jesus means something like this, “The destruction of the temple will be to the Jewish people as if their world is destroyed. To them, it will be as if their world is shattered. But don’t be afraid. That judgment will be a vindication of me. It will prove that my words are true. When you see that happening, stand up straight, confident in the faith.” That could be true because the Bible often uses language of “signs in sun and moon and stars” hyperbolically, to talk about the destruction of an empire, the end of one age and the beginning of another.

But Jesus could very well be talking about his return to Earth. He might mean something like this: “The temple will be destroyed, just as it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. These acts of judgment are pictures of a greater, final judgment when I return. Don’t worry about signs that appear before my return, because you won’t miss that. Everyone will see me come. And many will be afraid. But when I return, you have no reason to fear—if you endure in your faith.” All of the judgments we read about in the Bible, whether it’s the flood during Noah’s day, the destruction of the city of Sodom, the judgment that came upon the Egyptians during the Passover and the Red Sea, and the destruction of Jerusalem’s temples, foreshadow the great, final judgment. Those who have rejected Jesus should be afraid. They will be condemned. But those who have put their trust in Jesus have no reason to fear.

Then, Jesus returns to a discussion of what will happen before the fall of Jerusalem. Let’s read verses 29–33:

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

When the disciples see that the things Jesus says will happen before the destruction of the temple come to pass, they should know that God’s kingdom is advancing. And they are drawing one day closer to when the kingdom of God will be fully realized on Earth. Jesus says that his predictions regarding Jerusalem and the temple would happen within a generation, and they did. This is further proof that his word is true. And he boldly declares that even though this world as we know it will pass away and be replaced with a new creation, one where there is no evil, no decay, and no sin, his words won’t pass away. Jesus speaks the words of God, because he is God. So much of the words we bother with are short-lived, but Jesus’ words endure forever. Because what he says is true, we can take him at his word. His true predictions about what happen in the first century give us confidence that everything else he says is true, including his return when he comes in glory to gather his people, to condemn those who rebel against him, and to bring about the new creation.

Jesus then concludes his message with a warning for all of us. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.

Jesus tells us to be ready, not to get overpowered by distractions and drunkenness, not to fall into a spiritual stupor or be overwhelmed by “the cares of this life.” Instead, we should live life knowing that Jesus could return soon—or we could die at any time. Either way, we will have to stand before him in judgment. Therefore, we should stay awake. Jesus doesn’t mean that literally. He slept like everyone else. But he means we should be spiritually prepared. We should put our faith in him. We should realize that this life will not last forever.

The apostle Paul says something similar in 1 Thessalonians 5. He says that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). Most people will think they are secure, but they will be destroyed (1 Thess. 5:3). Then, Paul says to Christians,

So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Here’s the main thing you should take away from today: What Jesus said would happen has happened. This isn’t just recorded in the Bible. Josephus, who was not a Christian, wrote about it. One can also look at the Arch of Titus in Rome, which was built around the year 81 to celebrate Titus’s victory over the Jews and which has depictions of that victory on it. We have good reason to believe that Jesus made his predictions in the year 30 or 33, and that the Gospel of Luke was written in the early 60s. (In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul quotes Luke 10:7. Paul wrote that letter in the mid-60s, so Luke must have been written earlier. Also, there are good reasons to believe that the book of Acts was written by the mid-60s. Since Acts it the sequel to Gospel of Luke, and since Luke probably conducted research for his Gospel while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea around 57–59, there’s no reason why Luke couldn’t have written his Gospel around the year 60.) So, Jesus’ predictions came before the destruction of Jerusalem. His predictions were true. Why shouldn’t we believe everything else he says? His words are the words of God, and they will endure long after the words of today’s politicians, journalists, academics, actors, novelists, and historians will be forgotten.

Trust in Jesus. Be ready for his return. And tell other people how they can endure in the faith so that they can gain eternal life.

If you do trust in Jesus, know that he hasn’t promised us an easy life. He didn’t promise his disciples that things would be easy for them. We may or may not face great persecution, but all of will suffer. Yet Jesus promises to be with us and he promises that he will ultimately deliver us from evil.

Notes

  1. Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Missouri Temple Prophecy,” Institute for Religious Research, August 22, 2017, http://mit.irr.org/joseph-smiths-missouri-temple-prophecy.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Robert H. Stein, Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 55.
  4. Stein, Jesus, the Temple and the Coming Son of Man, 77, mentions several: Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37; Josephus, Antiquities 17.271; Jewish Wars 2.56); Simon of Perea (Antiquities 17.273–77; Jewish Wars 2.57–59) and Athronges of Judea (Antiquities 17.278–84; Jewish Wars 2.60–65). Right before a.d. 70, there were Menahem, the son of Judas the Galilean (Jewish Wars 2.433–48), John of Gischala (Jewish Wars 2.585–89; 4.121–27), and Simon bar-Giora (Jewish Wars 4.503–44; 4.556–83).
  5. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 903.
  6. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 372-374.
  7. Josephus, Jewish War 6.274–89.
  8. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in Matthew, Mark, Luke, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 501.

 

Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away (Luke 21:5-38)

Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Roman Empire, an act of judgment that foreshadows that great day of judgment when Jesus comes again. Jesus predicted the future, his predictions were written down in advance of the destruction of Jerusalem, and this predictions were proven true. This gives us good reason to believe that his words are true and will never pass away. Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 17, 2019.

Beware of the Scribes

This sermon was preached on November 10, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

When I was growing up, my family would occasionally go to a restaurant in Salem called Roosevelt’s. I don’t know why, but the restaurant was named after Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), the twenty-sixth president of the United States (1901–1909). I remember two things about the restaurant’s menu. I remember that they had a list of soups. On the menu, it said “New England Clam Chowder,” with a description and a price. Then, it said, “Manhattan Clam Chowder.” There was no price, and the description was something like this: “Drive 250 miles south on I-95.” I thought that was funny.

The other thing I remember about the menu at Roosevelt’s was that there were quotes by Teddy on it. There was one long quote, taken from a speech that he gave in Paris in 1910. The whole speech was titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” but the quote is better known as “The Man in the Arena.” Here it is:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.[1]

I appreciated it when I was young, and I’ve appreciated it every time I’ve seen it. I even saw it framed in Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. The idea is that the person that counts is the one who gets in the arena and tries, even if he fails; the one who gets off the sideline and into the game; the one doesn’t simply criticize, but who gets his hands dirty. There are many people who make a living from being a critic. Think of all the talking heads on sports shows. People likely won’t remember them, but they will remember the athletes they criticize, even the ones who failed. People still remember Bill Buckner, who at the end of a long and very solid baseball career, made an error that will live in infamy, helping the Boston Red Sox lose game 6 of the 1986 World Series. But who remembers the names of all the talking heads who criticized Billy Buck?

Who is the man who counts? Who is the woman who matters? Roosevelt said it was the one who tried, the one “who spends himself in a worthy cause.” Who do you think are the people that matter the most?

We know what the world would think. The other day, I saw that someone had posed a question on Facebook: If you could invite five people, dead or living, to dinner, who would you invite? She put down musicians. Who would you choose? We would all probably choose famous names. A lot of us would put Jesus. Certainly, I would. I might also invite Paul, Augustine, C. S. Lewis, and perhaps a wild card, a non-Christian like Winston Churchill. Maybe an artist like Vincent Van Gogh. I don’t know. But we all tend to think of the big names, that these are the people that matter most in history.

But what if we’re wrong? What if the people that matter most are the ones who are quietly faithful to God? What if the ones who humbly give God their best portions, the ones who spend their lives for the worthiest of causes, are the people that matter most? To know whether a life has been spent for a worthy cause, we need an evaluator. Roosevelt wasn’t afraid to evaluate. But I doubt Roosevelt had perfect judgment. To know what matters most and who matters most, we need to hear from the Great Evaluator, God himself. And God has spoken on the matter. More specifically, God the Son, Jesus Christ, evaluated people. And he has told us how to spend our lives for that worthiest of causes.

This morning, we’re going to look at two short passages that are right next to each other in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus, focusing mostly on the last years of his life—or, to be more specific, his pre-resurrection life, because Jesus still lives. In the passage that we’re going to read, Jesus is in Jerusalem. It’s three days before he will be executed. Over the last few weeks, we have seen that his opponents, mostly the religious leaders of his day, have questioned him, trying to get him to say the wrong thing so that they could have him killed. But Jesus didn’t fall into their traps. Now, as the day of his death approaches, he criticizes the Jewish leaders. But he praises one unlikely person. And I think Luke wants us to see that though the religious leaders of his day were hypocrites, not everyone in Jerusalem was.

So, let’s now turn to Luke 20:45–47:

45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”[2]

Jesus is in the temple complex in Jerusalem with his disciples. He’s in the religious center of Judaism, and he publicly calls out some of the religious leaders of his day for their hypocrisy. Specifically, he mentions the scribes, which in other translations are sometimes called “teachers of the law” (NIV). They were experts of the law that God gave to Israel, generally what we call the Old Testament. They’re often associated with the chief priests and other religious leaders of Jesus’ day. When Jesus first predicted his death, he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). They were among the people who wanted to “destroy” Jesus (Luke 19:47).

Here, Jesus says that the scribes are the kind of people who like to be seen as being very religious and very honorable. They like to walk around in their robes, which would signal to everyone that that they were “men of the cloth.” They loved to be greeted in marketplaces. I assume Jesus doesn’t just mean they like hearing “hello.” He means that they liked being referred to as an expert in Scripture, the way that some religious leaders insist on being called Pastor So-and-So, or Father Such-and-Such. When they attend feasts, they want the best seats, next to the host. If they attended a wedding, they want to be seated near the bridal party, not by the bathrooms. They also like to make long, showy prayers. In Matthew 6:5, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

In other words, what the scribes like to do is make a public impression. They want to be viewed as “holier than thou.” In our society, religious leaders aren’t very well respected by the general public. But that wasn’t the case in Judaism in first-century Palestine. The Jewish people were inherently religious. Outside of political leaders, the religious leaders were probably the closest thing to a celebrity that this society knew. They held the most favorable positions in this culture. And these scribes, like the Pharisees, loved getting the attention that came along with that.

All of the charges that I’ve singled out so far could simply be called pride. Pride is one of the roots of many sins. It’s an overinflated view of the self. Instead of humbly recognizing one’s true position in the world, before God and among one’s fellow men, it leads people to think they are great, more important than others, worthy of being exalted. It’s singled out in the book of Proverbs as a particularly bad sin. Proverbs 8:13 says,

The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
and perverted speech I hate.

And Proverbs 16:18 says,

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Pride is bad. But notice that Jesus includes another very serious charge in his condemnation of the scribes. He says that they “devour widows’ houses.” What does this mean? Somehow, the scribes are making widows poor, taking away their livelihood. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “They take from the group most in need and leave them devastated.”[3] Then he lists four possibilities of how the scribes did this, which are mentioned in non-biblical Jewish texts. There were widows dedicated to the temple, and the temple authorities managed their property, taking advantage of the widows. The scribes took advantage of the widows’ hospitality. They “took homes as pledges of debts they knew could not be repaid.”[4] Or they took fees for legal advice.

While we don’t know exactly how the scribes were taking advantage of widows, we know that they did, and we know that this is wrong. Throughout the Bible, God says that his people should take care of widows (and orphans) because they were particularly vulnerable. There wasn’t anything like social security or insurance policies to help them. Women worked, but often didn’t make enough money to support themselves. They relied upon men for provision. A younger widow would need to remarry. An older widow would have to rely upon a son or other family members. The community was supposed to help widows, and God clearly denounces those who would take advantage of them. When they failed to do this, and did the very opposite, taking advantage of widows, God threatened judgment.

Listen to one passage from the Old Testament. This is Zechariah 7:8–14:

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, 10 do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” 11 But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. 12 They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great anger came from the Lord of hosts. 13 “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear,” says the Lord of hosts, 14 “and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and the pleasant land was made desolate.”

God takes sin very seriously. Oppressing other people, who are also made in the image of God, is a serious crime against not only other people, but against their Creator. Notice that God also takes it very seriously when people “devise evil against another in [their] heart.” We may not all actively take advantage of the widow and the orphan, but we have all had evil thoughts against other people. We may not have the same pride of the scribes and the other religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but we do all have some pride. We tend to put ourselves first. So, we shouldn’t think that Jesus’ words could only apply to religious leaders.

Still, religious leaders do fall into particular temptations. Many do succumb to pride. This happens in our celebrity age. The celebrity Christian is someone who is in danger of great temptations. We have celebrity pastors and celebrity Christian musicians and celebrity Christian authors and even comedians. And many of them have fallen and will continue to fall. Some fall into sexual sin, into affairs and sexual abuse. They think that their position of authority somehow gives them license to take advantage of women or, even worse, children. Some fall because of arrogance and pride, refusing to take wise counsel, acting like bullies. Some fall because of money issues. There’s something about celebrity, about fame, that leads people to think they are greater than they are. It leads people to think that they are above the law. And with religious leaders, it can lead them to think they are above the law that they teach.

And there’s a history of religious leaders using their positions to get rich. This often happens by taking advantage of the poor and gullible. Today, preachers of the prosperity gospel do this. The prosperity gospel is the message that says that if you’re faithful to God, if you really believe in God’s power and promises, you will receive God’s favor, usually in the form of wealth or happiness or a good family or health or friends, or something along those lines. In other words, if you’re a good Christian and you really trust in God, then he will make your life abundant in some obvious way right now. It’s the message taught by Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar and many others. It’s sometimes called the “word of faith” theology. If you say something and really believe it, it will come to pass. That’s why it’s called “name it and claim it” or “blab it and grab it” theology.

I saw one example of this recently. Donald Trump appointed Paula White to be the head of his administration’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The next day, Paula White sent an email to her ministry supporters, asking them to give $3,600 to her to receive God’s blessings.[5] She made a video in which she claims that God is ready to perform “a suddenly”—that’s what she calls God’s sudden activity of bringing blessings to his people.[6] She quotes a lot of Scripture quickly in a way that might fool people who don’t understand what the Bible says in context. She says that people should give her $3,600, or $300, or $70. This is supposedly based on numbers of animals given to God in 2 Chronicles 29:32–33. She writes to her email list: “GOD IS PREPARED TO SHIFT YOUR SEASON TO A SUDDENLY! This is time sensitive. I ask you to act NOW! And as you act I declare by Apostolic authority that over the next three months your SUDDENLY season will arrive. . . . The heavens will move as you move.” Give to Paula and God will give to you—that’s what she’s saying.

This theology isn’t just nonsense, it’s evil. It takes advantage of the gullible, who think that if they make a sacrificial financial gift to these people, God will later reward them. I’ve heard prosperity gospel preachers say that people who can’t afford to give should in faith put their donations on a credit card, trusting that God will bring finances into their life that they don’t currently have so that they can later pay off their credit card balance. I’m sure some people have responded. After all, these prosperity gospel teachers are wealthy, which means some people must be supporting them. Getting rich by telling lies in the name of God is an evil thing.

The scribes are described as hypocrites, people who put on a public show of being holy in order to achieve fame and fortune. And Jesus says such people will be condemned by God—assuming that they don’t humble themselves, confess their sins to God, and turn to him in faith. These scribes may fool other people, but there’s no fooling God.

But Jesus doesn’t just condemn religious hypocrisy. He also praises those who are sincerely religious. And we see this in the next few verses. Before we read them, I want to make a general comment about reading the Bible. The chapter and verse numbers that we have in our Bibles are not part of the original text of the Bible. Chapter numbers were created in the thirteenth century and verse numbers were created in the sixteenth century. They are very helpful in many ways. We can all find the same passage quickly even if we have different translations and editions of the Bible. But sometimes chapter numbers create divisions where there shouldn’t be any. That’s the case in this passage. I think we’re supposed to read the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21 together. With that being said, let’s read Luke 21:1–4:

1 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

In the temple complex in Jerusalem, there were thirteen receptacles into which people could make offerings that were used to support worship at the temple. Jesus looks at the rich making their offerings. In Mark 12:41, we’re told, “And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums.” Perhaps the number and weight of the coins they put into these receptacles made a loud sound, publicly announcing how very generous they were.

But there’s also a poor widow who makes an offering. She puts into two copper coins, two leptons, which in today’s currency might be equivalent to two dollars, perhaps even less. Jesus says that this widow has actually given more than the rich, because “they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Rich people sometimes are quite generous with their money. It’s not uncommon to hear of millionaires giving large gifts to some charity or non-profit institution. But a millionaire can easily afford to give tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Billionaires can easily give millions of dollars. But for someone who is barely surviving to give their last two dollars is a greater sacrifice. In giving whatever money she had, this widow had to trust that God would provide for her. She would have to pray to God what Jesus told his disciples to pray: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). She would have to hope that other people, whether family members or neighbors, would have to give her more money or food, so that she could continue to live.

She wasn’t giving this money because she was manipulated by a religious authority. She wasn’t giving this money so that she could meet the needs of some law. She wasn’t giving sacrificially to achieve her “best life now,” in response to some prosperity gospel teacher. She gave because she loved God, because she thought that worship of God at the temple was more important than anything else. She realized that everything she had was from God, and she wanted to give back to God what he had given to her. And Jesus commends her.

Last week, I talked about the importance of living life with an eternal perspective. If we think this life is what matters most, we will tend to be greedy and selfish. We will want to experience all of the world’s pleasures right now. But if we realize that this life is brief, and that the greatest pleasures will be found by spending eternity with God, we can give generously. We can also obey knowing that God isn’t withholding anything good from us. Likewise, we can give generously now, knowing we’ll be rich in eternity.

Jesus said, earlier in Luke, “Blessed are who you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Jesus doesn’t mean that every poor person is automatically part of God’s kingdom. That would go against much of what he taught elsewhere. To be part of God’s kingdom, one must be born again of the Holy Spirit, transformed by God to be a new kind of person (John 3:3–8). One must believe in Jesus, the Son of God, as the world’s only Savior (John 6:27–29). But poor Christians can be comforted by knowing that in eternity, they will be rich. That doesn’t mean that in the new creation, every Christian will have a mansion and a sports car, or whatever your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or “MTV Cribs” fantasy is. But in eternity, there will be no suffering for Christians, and all who have put their faith in Jesus will have equal access to the one true God, the greatest treasure there is.

What we do we learn from this? First, we should learn from the negative example of the hypocritical scribes. We shouldn’t put on an air of religiosity, appearing holy in order to make a public impression. We should never use religion to manipulate God, because God can’t be manipulated. He knows our motivations—he knows them better than we do! If we don’t truly trust and love God, we shouldn’t obey him in order to get what we really want, which is money or health or a nice life. If you do trust and love Jesus, don’t make a show of what you do. Don’t do things, whether giving or praying or anything else, in order to be seen.

Second, we should learn positively from the example of this widow. She gave generously in faith. I’m sure that all of us could give more to the church, more to missionaries, more to organizations that translate the Bible. We could all give more to the poor, to charities that help orphans and widows and the homeless. When it comes to giving, we should do so according to our ability to give. The apostle Paul gave instructions to church in Corinth for their giving. In 1 Corinthians, he said, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.” (1 Cor. 16:2). In other words, give according to how God has prospered you. But giving super-abundantly and sacrificially is commended. In 2 Corinthians, he commended the church in Macedonia, because “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord” (2 Cor. 8:2–3).

Paul goes on to say that our giving shouldn’t be done “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). Our giving should be done from a heart that has been changed by God, a heart that is thankful, a heart that recognizes how much God has done for us in Jesus.

And we see a hint of that in this passage. We’re told that this widow “out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Literally, the original Greek says that she gave πάντα τὸν βίον, which could mean “her whole life.” “Bio” can mean one’s living, meaning one’s possessions, but it refers to life more generally. Biology is the study of life. Biography is something written about a life. This woman gave more than the rich because she gave her whole life to God. And what does that have to do with Jesus? Jesus gave his whole life to bring us back to God.

That’s the story of Christianity. God made us to know him, love him, trust him, worship him, serve him, and obey him. But from the beginning, humans haven’t done that. We’ve rejected God. We don’t treasure him. We don’t trust that his words are good for us. So, we shut him up and go our own way. While we don’t always do great evils in the world’s eyes, to ignore the One we are made for is a great evil. We were made to spend our lives for the worthiest cause, which is to know God, to love him, and to live for him. But we don’t do that. We sin. And God cannot dwell with sin. He can’t have sin tearing apart his creation. He is patient now, but one day he will condemn sinners and cast them out of his creation forever.

But God is merciful and gracious, and he sent his Son to become a man. Jesus left his home in heaven, a home full of glorious riches, to live on Earth. That didn’t mean that he stopped being God. It meant that as a human, he had to deal with the things we all experience: hunger, thirst, fatigue, and pain. But he endured more: he was rejected and betrayed, laughed at and mocked, tortured, and even killed. He was the only person who ever lived a sinless, perfect life, yet he was executed like a criminal. This was the greatest act of evil. But it was also God’s plan to punish sin without destroying all sinners. Jesus took the penalty that we deserve, which is death and hell. And he rose from the grave, showing that he paid that penalty in full, and that he has power over sin and death. All who come to him in faith are forgiven of even the worst of their crimes, the greatest of their sins. They will live with Jesus forever in a perfect world. But those who come to faith will be changed. They will live differently.

When the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about giving, he urged them to give generously. The reason why they should give was the example of Jesus. Paul writes this:

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:8–9).

I think Paul would want us to do more than give financially. After all, Jesus didn’t literally give money. By becoming a man and dying for sinners, Jesus became poor. He gave his life for us. What should we give him in return? Our whole lives. That means we will give money generously, but we should also give our time, our minds, our hearts, and our obedience to Jesus.

What would it look like for you to give a bit more to Jesus? Some of us might need to give our lives to him. We haven’t put our faith in him. We still think that we’re the king of our worlds, so we refuse to acknowledge that Jesus is the true King. We fail to see how we’ve rejected God, so we don’t see sin as a big deal. If that’s you, I urge you to turn to Jesus now.

Some of us might need to make a greater commitment to Jesus. We might need to read our Bibles more and pray more. We might need to commit to a church, becoming members—committing to the church is committing to the body of Christ. There’s no such thing as Lone Ranger Christians who do the Christian life on their terms, apart from the authority of the church. Real Christians recognize the church as God’s plan for his people. Some of us might need to give more—not just money, but also time and effort. What would it look like for you to give more of your life to Jesus? Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Get in the arena and spend your life in the worthiest cause.

Notes

  1. Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson University, https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Culture-and-Society/Man-in-the-Arena.aspx.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1643.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Nicole A. Menzie, “Paula White Joins White House, Asks Ministry Supporters for $3,600 in Return for God’s Favor,” Medium, November 1, 2019, https://medium.com/@namenzie/paula-white-joins-white-house-asks-ministry-supporters-for-3-600-in-return-for-gods-favor-30242ade0c90.
  6. You can see the video of Paula White here: https://paulawhite.org/videos/Suddenly2015_Pgm2_Seg1_EmailVersion.mp4?inf_contact_key=cb4a9a3cf858c34aa45bc7971fc4f85ea61f15688044e0df333a256a7a7fd2ca.

 

God of the Living

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

We don’t live in a culture that seeks to understand. We live in a culture of people who think they’re right and want to shut down anyone opposed to them. Or, that’s how it seems to me, at least. It appears that many people of different persuasions want to assume that what others believe is incoherent, and, if put to the test, absurd. And the way that people sometimes try to prove this is through what you might call a “gotcha” question.

Let me give you an example of such a question that some Christians have asked atheists who believe in some form of Darwinian evolution. They ask something like this, “If humans have evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The question is supposed to expose how foolish the evolutionists are. Now, I don’t believe in some form of Darwinian evolution, or what is called macroevolution. I don’t believe that random, undirected mutations of DNA could, against all the odds, produce different species. I don’t believe in that for theological reasons, but also scientific ones. I have studied what neo-Darwinians believe and I find errors in their reasoning. And because of that, I recognize that the “gotcha question” I posed earlier is a really bad one. Darwinians don’t believe that we evolved from apes who, inexplicably, still exist when natural selection should have wiped them out. No, they believe that we and modern apes have a common ancestor, an ape-like species that no longer exists. To quote an atheistic neo-Darwinian, Jerry Coyne, “We are apes descended from other apes, and our closest cousin is the chimpanzee, whose ancestors diverged from our own several million years ago in Africa.”[1]

Now, I’m not going to talk a lot more about evolution. My point is that Christians can engage in this “gotcha” question business. Of course, atheists do it, too. You’ve probably heard someone question your belief in the Bible by asking a question like, “Adam and Eve (at first) had two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, and then we’re told Cain had a wife. Where did she come from?” Or, atheists and Muslims might question the doctrine of the Trinity. “How can God be one and three? Isn’t that a contradiction?” They might question the doctrine of the incarnation: “How can Jesus be fully God and fully man?”

There are many different answers to those questions. Adam and Eve might have had daughters that we’re not told about, and Cain could have married one of them. God is three persons who share one divine substance, who are so united in their thoughts, will, and purpose that they act as one. Jesus is the only person with two natures, one divine and one human. And there are excellent books written about these subjects.[2]

But my point is not to answer those questions in detail. I bring all of this up because today, in the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see some of Jesus’ enemies ask him a “gotcha” question. They don’t come to him seeking to understand what he believed. Instead, they try to trap him with what they think is not only a tricky question, but one that can’t be answered well at all. And Jesus answers them by showing that they’re wrong. Then, he asks his own “gotcha” question, and they can’t, or won’t, answer him.

We’ll see all of this in Luke 20:27–44. I invite you to turn there now. If you haven’t been with us, the Gospel of Luke is one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. We’re getting closer to the end of the story that Luke tells. Jesus is now in Jerusalem, and it’s three days before he will be crucified. He is facing opposition from all kinds of people, including different groups of Jewish theologians and leaders and politicians. Eventually, he’ll face Gentiles, too. None of these people can show that Jesus is in the wrong.

We’ll begin by reading verses 27–33:

27 There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, 28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. 30 And the second 31 and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. 32 Afterward the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”[3]

We’ve met the Pharisees before. They were one group of prominent Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time. Now, we meet the Sadducees. They were “the priestly aristocracy of the Jewish people.”[4] The name “Sadducee” comes from Zadok, who served as high priest about a thousand years earlier, when Solomon was the king of Israel. Many of the high priests in the first century were Sadducees. But most English speakers learn who they are by this little saying: “The Sadducees denied life after death, which is why they were sad, you see.” Luke tells us that they denied there is a resurrection. They also didn’t believe that all of the Hebrew Bible was binding. They adhered to the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses. And, they thought, since those books don’t clearly teach about the afterlife, there must not be any.

These men come up to Jesus to try to show him that the doctrine of life after death is absurd. So, they come up with an outlandish scenario. But first, they quote Moses. What they’re referring to is part of the law that God gave to Israel through Moses. This is what Deuteronomy 25:5–6 says:

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

This practice is very strange to our modern ears, but the law held that if a man dies, leaving a childless widow, his brother should take the widow as a wife and give her a son. In that day, widows were very vulnerable. They wouldn’t or couldn’t make much money, and they would have to rely upon the kindness of strangers, as it were, to survive. But perhaps more importantly, if the dead man had no left no children to carry on his name, it would “be blotted out of Israel.” It would be as if the man never lived. In the Sadducees’ way of thinking, since there is no afterlife, the only way to have one’s memory retained is through descendants. Perhaps some atheists today might think something similar: it’s important to leave a legacy.

Assuming that law, and that people are married in the resurrection, the Sadducees then present their absurd scenario, which isn’t seven brides for seven brothers, but one bride for seven brothers. A woman is married to one brother who dies, leaving her without a child. Brother two steps in, but he dies before the woman can have a son. The same happens with brothers three, four, five, six, and seven. So, this poor woman has been married to all seven brothers, not one of which has fathered a child.

Now, the Sadducees, ask, perhaps holding back their snickering, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” They assume that life in the resurrection will be like this life, only eternal. They assume that people will be married in that life. So, who will this woman be married to? Not one of these brothers has a better claim on her than the others. Will she be married to all seven? That seems absurd. In fact, the Sadducees are employing a tactic called reduction ad absurdum: they think they are reducing a belief in the resurrection to an absurdity. If we are raised from the dead, they think, then absurd situations will result.

Now, using that technique isn’t always wrong. Sometimes the best way to test out an idea is to see what consequences would follow from it if it were true. But to use that technique rightly, you have to understand the idea in the first place. And that’s were these men fail.

Let’s look at Jesus’ answer in verses 34–40:

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. 37 But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him any question.

Jesus tells them they’re wrong. I don’t know why, but Luke doesn’t include what Matthew and Mark do. In Matthew 22:29, Jesus says, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” The Sadducees don’t understand the Hebrew Bible, they don’t understand the resurrection, and they don’t understand that God has the power to raise up people from the dead.

So, Jesus corrects them. He says that people marry in this age, but they won’t do that in the new creation. In the new creation, there is no death, and no need to produce more people. Procreation will no longer be needed. And God’s purpose for marriage will have an end. I’ll explain why in a moment. But the key thing that Jesus is correcting is their assumption that eternal life is going to be exactly like this life, only infinitely longer. Jesus is implying that things will be dramatically different in the new creation.

Then, to show that the Sadducees are wrong about their denial of the resurrection, Jesus meets them where they are. It’s like he’s saying, “You believe in what Moses wrote? I do, too. Now, don’t you know in Exodus 3, when God speaks to Moses at the burning bush, he says that he is the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those men were dead for hundreds of years. God didn’t say he was their God. No, he still is, because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still exist. They haven’t been resurrected yet, but they will be one day. Still, they’re alive as spirits in heaven. God is the God of the living, not the dead.”

The technique that Jesus uses here is a great one to use. You start by pointing out something that both you and your debate partner agree on. Then, you show how your beliefs better explain that agreed-upon data better than your opponent’s beliefs. Christians, we can do this with human rights. We can say to atheists and agnostics, “You believe in human rights? I do, too. Now, if there’s no God and we’re the product of undirected, impersonal forces, why should all humans have rights. If we’re continually evolving, and if natural selection tends to eliminate the least fit members of a species, why shouldn’t we treat only those who are healthy, smart, and talented as fully human and ignore the needs of the disabled and people who are less gifted? That really doesn’t make sense. But if we’re all created by God and loved by God, then regardless of our abilities, we are all valuable.”

You can do that with other issues, such as rationality, or human intelligence. You could say to the atheist, “You believe that humans have intelligence and can discover the truth? So do I. But if we’re the products of undirected, impersonal, unintelligent forces, and if evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest, then that means that everything about us is tuned for survival, not truth. If every organ of our body, including our brains, are the product of the survival of the fittest, then that means they are good at surviving. But that doesn’t mean our brains will know what is true. Perhaps our brains believe a lot of useful fictions, lies that help us survive longer. But if we’re the products of a super intelligence, God, who has made us in his image and after his likeness, then we are intelligent, too, and can come to know the truth.”

That may sound strange at first, but a number of people, including Darwin himself, have realized that if the universe is the product of a godless process of evolution, then there’s no reason to trust our brains. Even Darwin had this thought.[5] If our thoughts are just the result of chemical reactions in our brains, then there’s no reason to trust they are true. But we couldn’t get anywhere in our thinking if that were the case. That’s why C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court.”[6]

Jesus’ answer is brilliant, and even some of his other opponents, the scribes can recognize this. And at this point, no one else—not the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, or the Sadducees—dared ask Jesus another “gotcha” question.

I’m going to come back to the idea of resurrection in a moment, but first I want to see how Jesus asks his own question. Let’s look at verses 41–44:

41 But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? 42 For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
43  until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

44 David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

This is a bit tricky to understand if you don’t know the Bible. In the Old Testament, God made many promises made that one day, a special person would come who would fix all of the problems of Israel and all of the problems of the world. And, just to give us a more complete picture of the biblical story, in case we don’t know it, in the beginning God made the universe to be a theater for his glory, a temple where he and his people would dwell together in harmony. He made us in his image and after his likeness, which means that we were supposed to have a special relationship with God, one marked by our love of God, our worship of God, and our obedience to God. But the first human beings didn’t love and trust God, and therefore they disobeyed. Ever since, we have lived apart from God’s special presence, separated from him by our sin, which is our rebellion against him. God didn’t abandon his creation, however. He always had a plan to bring his people back to himself. He even promised that one day he would recreate the universe to be a perfect place once again. That’s what I mean when I talk of the resurrection or the new creation. God will recreate the world so that his people live with him forever in a real, physical world, one that doesn’t have an evil or death.

God promised that there would be someone who could bring about this new creation, who could fix this mess. We learn that this figure would come from Israel, from one of Abraham’s descendants. More specifically, he would be of the tribe of Judah. Later, we learn that he will be a descendant of David, the greatest king of Israel who lived and reigned roughly a thousand years before Jesus was on the Earth. This figure would, like kings and priests, be anointed. That’s why he’s called Messiah, which is based on a Hebrew word for “anointed,” or Christ, which is based on a Greek word for “anointed.”

So, Jesus quotes the beginning of Psalm 110, which he says was written by David. Again, this would have been written about a thousand years earlier. In the Psalm, David says that “the Lord,” which we can understand as God or, more specifically, God the Father, said to David’s “Lord,” “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The “right hand” isn’t a literal description as much as a description of power. Whoever is God’s “right hand man” shares his position of power and authority. God says to David’s Lord, “Come here until I put all your enemies under your feet.” Now, in Jesus’ day, it was assumed that David’s “Lord” would be a king who is his descendant. It could have referred to Solomon, his son. But it doesn’t seem to describe Solomon very well. It seems to be talking about the Christ, a descendant of David who would do more than Solomon could ever do.

Now, how could David, the king, refer to his own descendant as “Lord.” Fathers don’t usually address their sons as their own leaders. In David’s case, his son Solomon wouldn’t become king until after David died. Who could be David’s “Lord” when he wrote this Psalm? That’s what Jesus is asking when he says, “David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”

Jesus doesn’t get an answer from his enemies. Luke doesn’t tell us that clearly, but Matthew says, “no one was able to answer him a word” (Matt. 22:46). What Jesus was getting his audience to consider was that the Christ had to be greater than David, and probably not a mere human being. Because we have the whole Bible, we can answer Jesus’ question. Jesus is David’s Lord. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He existed in David’s day. And he has all the authority and power of God the Father. In fact, other passages in the New Testament say that Jesus is at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 5:31; 7:55–56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22) and that Jesus will reign until all enemies, including death, are “under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25–26). Jesus is both David’s son and his God and King, as strange as that may seem, because he is both God and man. The Son of God became a human being over two thousand years ago. He did this without ceasing to be God. He added a second nature to himself, one that coordinates with his divine nature so that he is one person with two natures, fully divine and yet also fully human. And, by the way, David’s son can be his Lord only if there is a resurrection, if David is still exists as a spirit and will, one day, be raised in bodily form from the grave.

Jesus is the answer to the riddle that he asks, just as Jesus is the answer to other riddles of the Old Testament. In Moses’s day, almost fifteen hundred years earlier, God said that he is “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6–7). How can God be merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and also be a God “who will by no means clear the guilty”? Which is it? Is he going to forgive sin or punish sin? Perhaps it’s both. God’s plan to fix the problems of the world focuses on the problem of sin, because sin is what corrupted the world. To renew the world, God must remove sin. But how can God remove and even destroy sin without destroying his people? If the penalty for sin is death, which is what the Bible says (Rom. 6:23), then how can God be a righteous judge and punish sin without everyone dying forever?

The answer is Jesus. When the Son of God became man, he came to do what we cannot. He came to live a perfect life, always loving, honoring, and obeying God the Father and loving other people. Though he was perfect, he took the death penalty for his people. He died on the cross, an instrument of torture and execution reserved for the enemies of the Roman Empire. But when Jesus died, he didn’t just die a painful death—a literally excruciating death. He also faced the wrath of God, the spiritual punishment for our sin. The best way to understand this quickly is to think of him enduring hell on Earth so that his people don’t have to go to hell. All who trust in Jesus, who put their faith in him and swear their allegiance to him, will be spared that fate.

After Jesus died, he rose from the grave, in a body that cannot die again. He did this to show that the penalty for sin had been paid, that he has power of sin and death, that he is the Son of God, and that his predictions of death and resurrection were true. He also rose from the grave as the first installment of a new creation, a guarantee that someday in the future, all of God’s people will have a resurrection. Jesus then ascended to heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father. But he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Everyone will have a resurrected body, and everyone will live forever. But not everyone will be in the new creation with God. Those who don’t put their trust in Jesus will be cast out, into darkness, into torment.

So, this passage teaches us about the identity of Jesus. He has the same authority and power as God, which is why God the Father can say to him that he is his right hand man. He is the Son of God, which doesn’t mean he has less power or authority than God the Father. But he’s also David’s son because he was born to a descendant of David, Mary, and he lived life as a real, though unique, human being. And from the whole Bible, we know that Jesus is the answer to sin and death. He is the key that unlocks the riddles of the Bible and the gate to the new creation.

We also get a brief glimpse of what life in that new creation will be like. We don’t have a lot of specific information about what life in that perfect world will be like, but from what God has revealed to us, we know that there will be continuities and discontinuities. In other words, some things will be the same, and other things will be different. God’s people will live on Earth, but the Earth will be perfected, with no more sin and evil, no more decay. We will have bodies that are recognizable, but they won’t have the effects of decay and they won’t die. We will worship God, but our worship will be enhanced because will be directly in God’s presence. And we will have relationships with each other, but they will be different. We will no longer be married to one another. Instead, we will be married to God. That sounds really strange at first, but think about what marriage is. It’s supposed to be a lifelong, exclusive relationship of love. We’re told in the Bible that the reason that God created marriage is to provide a picture of the relationship between himself and his people (Eph. 5:32–33). Our marriages right now foreshadow the true marriage. God could have made humans from scratch, instead of having them procreate. He could have made humans that multiply in other ways that don’t involve sex. And God didn’t need to create the only right context for sex, which is marriage. But he did all of this to provide a picture of the relationship he will have forever with his people. Marriage is one metaphor of the relationship between God and his people. There are others. Christ is the head of his body, which is the church. The Holy Spirit dwells in the temple, which is now the church. God is the King of his royal subjects. He is the Master of his servants. Jesus is also our friend and brother. Each metaphor provides us with a different understanding of our relationship to God. In a similar way, Jesus is our groom and we Christians are his bride. That doesn’t mean anything sexual, by the way. That relationship transcends sex and romance. It means that we are bound to one God in an exclusive relationship that includes love and trust. When we make other things more important to our lives, we’re cheating on God. God wants us to be faithful.

Now, the whole idea of no marriage and no sex in eternity sounds very strange to us. We tend to think that sex is one of the most pleasurable experiences that this life provides. But what we don’t know is that eternal life will be so pleasurable and so amazing that we won’t miss sex. To understand this, I want to quote again from C. S. Lewis. This passage comes from the book I already quoted, Miracles:

The letter and spirit of scripture, and of all Christianity, forbid us to suppose that life in the New Creation will be a sexual life; and this reduces our imagination to the withering alternative either of bodies which are hardly recognisable as human bodies at all or else of a perpetual fast. As regards the fast, I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No,’ he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it. Hence where fullness awaits us we anticipate fasting.[7]

When we hear about the fact that there won’t be marriage or sex in the new creation, we’re like kids who can’t imagine that sex would exclude what we think is the great pleasure. Perhaps today kids would think that would be playing video games. They might say, “If I can’t play video games while doing that, well, I don’t want to do that at all.” That’s because they can’t imagine a greater pleasure. Right now, we can’t imagine that life in the new creation with God will be so much better than our experience right now that we won’t lack for anything. But that’s what God has told us. Life with him will blow our minds. It will be like this life, only far, far, far greater, to such an extent that we really can’t understand it now. But the reason life will be so much better is because we’ll be with him, and there’s nothing greater than him.

If you are a Christian, continue to put your hope in Christ and live your life in light of eternity. There are things that are more important than marriage and career and entertainments. Even the suffering of this life will be counted as nothing in light of eternity. In fact, our suffering will make us appreciate eternity even more (2 Cor. 4:16–18).

If you are not a Christian, I will tell you this: The only way to experience real life after death, and the only way to have pleasures so great that even sex will count as nothing, is to trust in Jesus. He is the answer to the riddles of your own life. Humble yourself, confess your sin to him, and follow him as if he is your King. He is the only one who can conquer sin and death and unlock the door to a new, greater, more pleasurable eternal life.

Notes

  1. Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True (New York: Penguin, 2009), 192. He goes on to assert, “These are indisputable facts.” Well, no they aren’t facts. We don’t have irrefutable proof of such an evolution. As some have said, the theory is underdetermined by the data. For a fine refutation of Darwinian evolution (in its original and modern forms), see Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). See also my review essay on these books: https://wbcommunity.org/two-views-evolution.
  2. The books that deal with creation are many. I would recommend books by Hugh Ross as a starting place. For the Trinity, see Michael Reeves (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012) or Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017). For the incarnation, see Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (1986; reprint, Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001) or Bruce A. Ware, The Man Jesus Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
  3. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus in Jerusalem: The Last Days (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 71.
  5. In a letter to William Graham, written on July 3, 1881, Darwin wrote, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkeys mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?” In The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin Including an Autobiographical Chapter, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1887), 1:315–16, quoted in Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 316.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, rev. ed. (1960; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 21.
  7. Lewis, Miracles, 260–61.

 

God of the Living (Luke 20:27-44)

Jesus’ opponents ask him a “gotcha” question, intended to show that he is wrong. Jesus answers their question by showing that they do not understand what Jesus believes, neither do they know the Bible and the God of the Bible. Then, he asks a question of his own that they cannot answer. Find out why God is the God of the living, who Jesus is, and the hope of eternal, resurrected life that we have in him. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 20:27-44, on November 3, 2019.

Render to Caesar

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

A little over two weeks ago, CNN held a town hall event for Democratic presidential candidates to discuss LGBTQ issues. Beto O’Rourke was asked if religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriages should lose their tax-exempt status. He quickly said, “Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone, or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us.” This comment raised again issues of religious freedom, the First Amendment, and the relationship between government and religion.

There’s a lot that I could say about O’Rourke’s comments. I could say that Christians are committed to human rights and civil rights, but that not everything that is claimed to be a right is indeed a right. I don’t think anyone has the right to redefine what marriage is. And, really, that was the issue. People were already free to marry. But marriage has a definition, one created by God and one understood by all kinds of people for millennia. But that’s not the issue I want to address today. I do want to talk about the relationship between the government and religion, between the state and the church, and between civil leaders and God.

The reason why I want to talk about that is that the issue comes up in the Gospel of Luke, which is the book of the Bible that we have been studying on Sunday mornings. At this point in Luke’s biography of Jesus, it is only three days before Jesus will die on the cross. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to die. He knows that this will happen. And the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders of his time grows day by day. The religious leaders rejected Jesus and his teaching. They didn’t believe that he is the Son of God and the Messiah, the anointed King of the house of David. They were jealous of him, they thought he was a nuisance, and they simply wanted him gone. So, they tried to trap him in his words. They tried to get him to say something that would get him in trouble with the Roman Empire so that he would be put to death.

One of the last traps that they have is a question about government. We’ll see that Jesus avoids the trap by answering the question brilliantly. And what he says has ramifications for political and religious history.

Now, let’s turn to Luke 20:19–26:

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.[1]

Last week, we saw that Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the central religious and political symbol of Judaism, and Jesus went there to show that its days were numbered, and that the leaders of the Jews had failed to serve God. Over the centuries, they had often rejected the prophets that God sent to them. Now, they were rejecting God’s own son.

When Jesus taught a parable saying that much, the Jewish leaders knew that he was speaking against them. They wanted to kill Jesus right there and then, but they couldn’t do that without starting a riot. Starting a riot would lead to problems with the Roman Empire, the superpower of that time, and the occupying force in Judea since 63 BC. If there was a riot, the Romans would hold the Jewish leaders responsible. They could be killed, and the Romans would appoint a new high priest. So, Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders didn’t do anything at that moment, because they feared the people. That’s a sad commentary. Instead of fearing God and his Son, they feared the people.

Then, they started some sneaky business. They sent people to spy on Jesus. These people pretended to be sincere, to ask a simple question of Jesus, but what they were trying to do was set a trap. They wanted to catch Jesus in something he might say so that they could deliver him to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. And that’s what they do in the end.

So, these falsely sincere people come to Jesus, and they try to flatter him. “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.” Now, they don’t believe any of this. But what’s ironic is that they are telling the truth. Jesus is the only one who always speaks the truth, who doesn’t show favor to the rich and powerful, and who gives us the clearest revelation of God. In fact, Jesus doesn’t just teach the truth. He is the truth. He famously says elsewhere, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

There’s one details that Luke doesn’t give us that’s important. Both Matthew and Mark, in their Gospels, say that this group of “spies” included Pharisees and Herodians (Matt. 22:15–16; Mark 12:13). Pharisees were a group of Jewish religious leaders who were very serious about applying the law found in the Hebrew Bible to all of life. Herodians were Jews who wanted the Roman Empire to appoint a Jewish king. They get their name from Herod the Great, who was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate. Herod died about thirty-five years earlier, and the Herodians hoped that there could be another king like Herod, someone who was Jewish but who ruled under Rome. In short, the Pharisees resented Roman rule, because they believed this land belonged to Israel and there shouldn’t be Gentiles ruling over them. The Herodians embraced the political situation and accepted Roman rule. These two groups didn’t agree on many issues. They wouldn’t have spent time together. But they agreed that Jesus was bad for their business, so they planned to get rid of him. (Mark 3:6 tells us that they had planned this much earlier.) There’s an old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” A common enemy can unite two very different parties. This won’t be the last time this happens in the Gospel of Luke.

Now, these spies ask Jesus a question: “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Caesar was the Roman emperor, who happened to be Tiberius at this time. What they are asking is if it’s right to pay the poll tax, which every Jewish man was supposed to pay. There were various taxes that Jews had to pay to Rome; this was just one of them. Other taxes included taxes on produce and land. The Jews resented paying taxes to Rome. In the year AD 6, a man named Judas led a revolt against Rome because of this tax. These spies wanted to know if Jesus was a revolutionary or if he was something of a sell-out.

Jesus knows what they’re up to. He knows that if he says, “Yes,” then the Jewish people will think that he’s not the Messiah, because they believed the king of the Jews wouldn’t capitulate to Rome. If he says, “No,” then his enemies would be able to bring him before the Roman governor and tell him that Jesus is a rebel. In fact, that’s more or less what they will do (Luke 23:1–5). If Jesus is going to avoid their trap, he can’t give a simple yes or no answer.

So, he does something brilliant. He says, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” A denarius was a Roman coin, the coin used to pay this tax. On one side of the coin, there was an image of Tiberius, the emperor, and words that said: “Tiberius Caesar, Son the divine Augustus.” Augustus was the emperor when Jesus was born, and he came to be regarded as a god. Tiberius, his son, was therefore regarded as a son of a god. On the other side of the coin, there was a woman, possibly Augustus’s wife, Livia. The text said, “High Priest.”

Jews would have used these coins, but they would have resented using them, because of the religious claims made on them. Jews would regard the coins as bearing graven images of a false god. They knew Caesar wasn’t God. They knew that no Roman figure was a high priest. But they also had to use these coins.

Jesus’ question has an obvious answer. These coins bear the image of Tiberius, the emperor, and they belong to him. So, he says, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Literally, he says, “give back to Caesar Caesar’s.” It’s his coin, so there’s no problem giving it back to him.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He also says, literally, “of God to God.” In other words, “and also give back to God the things that belong to God.” Caesar’s image was on a coin. What is God’s image on? Well, God doesn’t have a body. He’s immaterial. He’s spirit. But the Bible says that we are made in his image and likeness, which means many things. We are made to represent God on Earth, to reflect his greatness. We are supposed to serve God and worship him. And we are supposed to be God’s children, which means we are supposed to love him and obey him the way perfect children will obey a perfect father.

By using the language of “likeness” when talking about the coin, and by talking about what belongs to God, I think Jesus is alluding to the language of Genesis 1:26–28, the passage that says we are made in God’s image and likeness. He’s saying that it’s good and right to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but don’t forget to give back to God that which is God’s. And what belongs to God? Well, everything. Because he made the whole universe, everything belongs to him. But, more specifically, we belong to him. Human beings are made in his image. They bear his likeness. And we are supposed to give our whole lives to God. There’s a line in a poem by A. E. Housman that says of men who die young, “They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man.” We are God’s coins, you might say.

What Jesus is saying is that human government is legitimate. Jesus will later tell Pontius Pilate that the authority that Pilate has was given to him “from above,” from God (John 19:11). It’s right to pay taxes to the government. But, he quickly adds, don’t forget that everything belongs to God. You belong to God, so recognize him as your ultimate King. Recognizing the authority of the state and recognizing the ultimate authority of God are not mutually exclusive. We can obey God by being good citizens in whatever country we find ourselves in. God is ultimate, and he has given authority to the state.

Before I unpack that idea a bit, let’s recognize that Jesus escapes the trap. Luke tells us that these spies “were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.” Because Jesus didn’t give a simple yes or no answer, and because his answer was brilliant, he disarmed his enemies—at least for the moment. They marveled at Jesus’ wonderful answer. They had nothing to say.

Now, let’s think more about what Jesus teaches us in this passage. The first thing we should notice is that secular governments are legitimate. They have been ordained by God to perform a certain function. Jesus’ recognition of this truth is very important, because it wasn’t something that people of his day believed. In much of human history, governments were tied to one religion. Israel was a theocracy: God was their King, and their whole form of government was established to recognize that fact. In the Old Testament, you can’t separate what is religious from what is political. And that was true of other nations in the world. That was true even in the Roman Empire, where many different gods were worshiped. Every city had its own god. Different crafts or trades had their own gods. But Romans were also supposed to recognize that Caesar was a god. Jesus says here that Caesar is not God. That’s a significant statement that we take for granted. But he also says that Caesar’s rule is legitimate.

Jesus isn’t the only one to say this. Jesus’ greatest messenger was the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, he says the following:

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Think about that for a moment. Paul says that all government has been instituted by God. Even the Roman Empire, which often persecuted Christians in the first three centuries of the church. In fact, the emperor at the time Paul wrote this letter was Nero, a very wicked and godless man who would later put Paul to death. Paul says that even a godless government has authority.

Another apostle, Peter, says pretty much the same thing. In 1 Peter 2:13–17, Peter writes

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.

Peter tells Christians to be subject to the emperor and to governors. Christians should honor such people. They should fear God, not men, but they should recognize the authority of civil leaders.

In Paul’s other letters, he tells Christians to pray for such leaders and to submit to them. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, he writes,

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.

And in Titus 3:1–2, Paul writes,

1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

So, human government has been instituted by God. Christians should recognize these authorities and submit to them.

Now, Jesus doesn’t tell his followers what the role of government is. But in those passages that I just read, Paul and Peter give us some indication of what the state should do. Paul says that rulers are a terror to bad conduct. He says that such a ruler “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The government does what the church should not, which is punish the wicked. The government exists to restrain evil, whether that’s through imprisonment or even the death penalty. This can also be through fines. And since there are many different nations in the world, and because there is bound to be conflict between these nations, we can imagine that the sword the government wields includes national defense.

Peter says much the same thing. The government exists “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” What that praise amounts to isn’t clear. Praise might be some kind of public recognition.

What’s important to see is that neither Jesus nor his apostles never say that government is intended to fix all the problems of the world. In fact, the Bible doesn’t say that government is the source of all evil, and neither does it say that it’s the solution to all evil. Jesus never tells his followers that to fix poverty and hunger, they must campaign to get the right emperor and senators in place in the Roman Empire. He never suggests that the answer to such problems is the government. Instead, he commands his followers to take care of the poor.

Additionally, Jesus doesn’t say that the government exists to advance the kingdom of God. The government isn’t the church. It doesn’t evangelize or make disciples. It can’t do that. And I would argue that the government’s ability to shape virtue and character is quite limited. Government is great at punishing vice but rather bad at instilling virtue.

So, we have seen that secular governments are legitimate, and from the rest of Scripture, we get a sense of what the government is supposed to do. How does the government relate to the church? This isn’t spelled out clearly in the passage. But throughout history, Christians have thought carefully about this. Christians have largely agreed that the government has a certain sphere of authority and that the church has a certain sphere of authority. Both have been granted by God.

One of the important documents in the history of the church that relates to this issue is a letter that Pope Gelasius wrote at the end of the fifth century to the emperor. The first half of the letter says this:

There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will.[2]

Gelasius tells the emperor that he is permitted to rule over humans, but not in spiritual matters. He also says that the church is weightier than the state. And that seems to be what Jesus is saying, too. Caesar has some things that we must give back to him, but all things are God’s.

This division between the state and the church is reflected in our own nation’s Constitution. The First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first clause, the so-called Establishment Clause, says that there should be no state church. Many countries have had an official religion and an official church. Think about the Church of England, for example. The Constitution says that the government should not establish such a church. The government doesn’t have the right to decide which religion is true and which religion we should adopt. The Free Exercise Clause says that the government should not prohibit its citizens from freely exercising their religion. And that doesn’t just mean that we should be free to do what we’re doing now, gathering in a church. It means that people should be able to live according to the dictates of their religion.

Much more can be said about the relationship between church and state. I don’t have time to say all that I’d like to say, but I do want to respond to Beto O’Rourke. If our government decided to remove tax exemptions from certain religious institutes, but not others, then it would essentially be establishing an acceptable religion. It seems that if the government starts to pick which religions are acceptable, then the Establishment Clause is being undermined. Remove tax exemption from all churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, or don’t remove them at all. The second thing I would say to O’Rourke is that the history of churches not being taxed is a long one that goes back to Constantine, the Roman emperor in the beginning of the fourth century. This tax exemption is not a reward. Rather, it’s an understanding that the government does not own the church. It’s a reminder that the government’s authority is limited. It’s a sign that says, “God is King; the government is not.” The Bible states, in both Daniel and Revelation, that governments that get too large tend to become beasts, oppressing people.

Now, we’ve seen that the government has a legitimate authority, a certain role to play in God’s economy, so to speak, and how it should relate to the church. There’s something else that we need to consider. How should Christians relate to the government? In general, we should be the best citizens. We should submit to authorities, pay our taxes, and pray for those in government. But what happens if the demands of government and the demands of God come into conflict with each other?

If the government asks us to do something that God forbids, or if the government forbids us to do something that God commands, we must not obey the government. There is room for civil obedience in the Bible’s teachings. In the Old Testament, there are two examples from Daniel. The king of Babylon commanded everyone to worship an idol. Daniel’s friends didn’t obey the king’s commands, and they were ready to suffer the consequence, the death penalty (Daniel 3). The king of Babylon commanded people not to pray to any god. Daniel went ahead and prayed to the true God, and he also was ready to face the music (Daniel 6). In the New Testament, we have the example of the apostles. The Jewish authorities told them not to teach about Jesus. But they went ahead and did that. They said, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The apostles suffered a consequence; they literally took a beating. And they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” of Jesus (Acts 5:41). Then they continued to proclaim the message of Christianity.

The Bible says that we should be good citizens of whatever country we’re in. But the Bible also reminds Christians that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). We are citizens of two different cities, the city of man and the city of God. We must obey both the state and God. But if the two come into conflict, we must obey God rather than human rulers. And we must be willing to suffer. We’re not told that the church should overthrow governments. Paul didn’t advocate overthrowing the wicked Nero. Jesus didn’t advocate overthrowing Pontius Pilate.

In fact, that’s another thing that is amazing about Jesus. He tells the Jews that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar. The taxes that the Jews paid would support the Roman Empire. That money would be used to pay Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and Roman soldiers. And three days later, Jesus was be killed by these people. Jesus knew this would happen (Luke 18:31–33). Yet Jesus says, “Pay your taxes, even to people who would do you harm.” Paul says the same thing, even though the Roman emperor would have him killed.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we should gladly vote for people who will cause us suffering. I would tell you not to vote for candidates who threaten religious freedom, just as I would tell you not to vote for candidates who are against the things that God has created, whether that’s marriage or vulnerable human lives. I don’t think that either of our political parties is necessarily a godly party. I’m not impressed by the political leaders that we have, and I often wish we had different choices, and perhaps a different political party. But I can’t vote for a political party that celebrates what God forbids, and which threatens to forbid what God commands. Still, if we have a government that is wicked, we must be willing to peacefully disobey the government and be willing to suffer the consequences.

We can suffer because Jesus suffered. Jesus knew he would suffer at the hands of those who received taxes. Jesus wasn’t killed simply because certain people hated him. He wasn’t killed simply because he was a nuisance, and it was politically expedient to destroy him. He died because his life, death, and resurrection comprised God’s plan to rescue sinful people. The fact is that though we are made in God’s image and likeness, we don’t accept that role. We rebel against God. We don’t want to come under his authority. We don’t want to obey him. We don’t love him as we should. We ignore him. We don’t worship him. Instead, we make lesser things the center of our lives. We don’t want God as our King. That’s why so many people act as though government is the ultimate authority. That’s why people are so very passionate about politics. As rebels against God, we deserve the death penalty. Our rebellion against God destroys his creation, and God cannot put up with that forever. But Jesus, the true image of God, the very likeness of God, lived a perfect life. He died in our place. If we trust in him, his perfect life is credited to us, as though we always did what God wanted us to do. And if we have faith in Jesus, all our sins, all our evil, all our rebellion, is forgiven. Our crimes have already been punished. Our debt to God has already been paid. Jesus laid down his life so that citizens of the kingdom of man could become citizens of the kingdom of God. No president, no governor, no senator, and no representative could do that for you.

So, what do we do? First, trust in Jesus. Indeed, he is. Trust him for your salvation. And come under his leadership in all areas of life, religious and political.

Second, be good citizens. Obey the authorities—unless they ask you to do something contrary to the way of Jesus, or if they forbid you to do something that Jesus would have you do. Pay your taxes. Honor your political leaders. Pray for them.

Third, don’t expect the government to solve all the world’s problems. The government can’t fix poverty. It can’t change hearts. It can’t save us. Don’t expect the government to proclaim the gospel or make disciples. The government isn’t the church.

Fourth, when it comes time to vote, or to do anything political, do so as a Christian. In fact, if you’re a Christian, your faith should influence everything you do. Our Constitution says that the government should not establish a church or keep us from living out our faith. But it does not say there is a “separation between church and state.” That phrase is based on a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut when he was in the White House. It is not part of the Constitution. Americans should refer to their faith when being political. Religion should influence public policy. The Founding Fathers believed that to be true. Christians, we can speak truth to power. Martin Luther King, Jr., wasn’t afraid to quote the Bible when talking about the sin of racism. We can’t be afraid to that when talking about other evils, or when promoting other goods. But we must never expect the government to do the job of the church.

So, be good citizens, pay your taxes, pray for your leaders. But most importantly, trust in Jesus and live as if he is King. Because he is. Human governments will all fade away, but Jesus, his word, and his reign will endure forever.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Gelasisus I, Famuli vestrae pietatis, written to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius in 494. A translation of this letter can be found at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/gelasius1.asp.

 

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Render to Caesar (Luke 20:19-26)

What is the relationship between God and government, Christianity and kings, Christians and politics? Jesus addresses the issue when his enemies tried to trap with a tricky question. Learn how Jesus evaded that trap and taught about our responsibilities to state and to God. Brian Watson preached this message, based on on Luke 20:19-26, on October 27, 2019.

Blessed Is the King

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on October 6, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

It’s October 6 today, which means it’s only twenty-five days from Halloween. It also means it’s less than thirteen months away from the next presidential election. Frankly, I’m not sure which one is scarier. On Halloween, we’ll see kids dressed up as all kinds of characters, and we have all kinds of characters running for president.

If you’re like me, you would like to have some different options for who is running for president. Who do you think would be an ideal leader? Some people want a leader who is able to maintain composure under pressure. We’ve had some presidents who have been military leaders, like George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe your ideal leader is the most educated, the most intelligent. John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were professors; Barack Obama was a lecturer. Perhaps you would like an entertaining president. Ronald Reagan was an actor, and Donald Trump was—and still is—a reality show star.

Whatever you think of the presidents we’ve had, they have had different strengths and many different weaknesses. But not one of them could ever compare to Jesus. There has never been a leader like Jesus, and there never will be. He is rightfully called the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16).

We have been studying the life of Jesus for some time by carefully examining the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus that we have in the Bible. Today, as we continue our study, we’re going to see that Jesus is the King who approaches the capital city of Jerusalem. We’re going to see that Jesus has a number of paradoxical properties. Jesus is a King who is in complete control, yet he knows what will happen in Jerusalem—he will be killed because of an angry mob and leaders who refused to take responsibility. We’ll see that Jesus comes not as a typical king, proud and full of himself. And yet he says that he deserves praise, that if people stopped showering him with accolades, even the stones would cry out. Jesus was a King that was prophesied in the Old Testament. Yet when he came to Jerusalem, the people who knew the Old Testament didn’t recognize him. Jesus is a King who was received by some and rejected by many others. And Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him, yet who also weeps over that rejection.

We’ll see all of this and more in today’s passage, Luke 19:28–44. We’ll begin by reading verses 28–40:

28 And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he drew near to Bethphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village in front of you, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32 So those who were sent went away and found it just as he had told them. 33 And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35 And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 And as he rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”[1]

Jesus and his disciples have been making their way to Jerusalem for quite some time now. Jesus has told his disciples that he will be killed in Jerusalem (Luke 18:31–33). Yet as he approaches the city, he prepares a royal entrance, fit for a king.

As I said, Jesus is a King who is in complete control. He tells his disciples to do something specific, to arrange for him to ride into Jerusalem on a colt. He knows exactly where the colt is, he tells them what to say to its owners, and the disciples do exactly as he tells them. We should notice that even as Jesus approaches his own betrayal, arrest, and execution, he is in complete control. We have no reason to think that he had somehow secretly arranged for his disciples’ conscription of this colt. So, how does he know where it is and what they should say? Because he’s not just a man; he’s also God. As strange as it is to think about, Jesus has a divine nature and a human nature. That means that he has a divine mind, a mind that is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows what is going to happen to him. He is arranging everything, including his own death. What happens to Jesus is not an accident. He will lay down his life, but he’s no victim. Everything must happen as it does to fulfill God’s plan.

So, Jesus tells two of his disciples to take a colt, a donkey, for him to ride on. In all that we’ve read about Jesus, we have never read that he rode on anything. He has always traveled by foot. So, why does he need to ride on a donkey? Well, there are two reasons. I’ll deal with one right now. His entrance in Jerusalem on a donkey might have reminded some people of events in Old Testament history. When Israel’s great king, David, was dying, there was some political intrigue in his kingdom. One of his sons, Adonijah, claimed that he would be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:5). But David chose his son Solomon to be the next king (1 Kgs. 1:28–30). David ordered that Solomon should ride into Jerusalem on his own mule and be anointed as the next king (1 Kgs. 1:32–35). And that is what happened, and when Solomon was proclaimed the next king of Israel, the people rejoiced (1 Kgs. 1:38–40). Also, the fact that people here spread their cloaks on the ground, giving Jesus something like the red-carpet treatment, is reminiscent of when another king of Israel, Jehu, was anointed (2 Kgs. 9:13).

Jesus, like Solomon, rides not a war horse or a chariot, but a more humble animal, a donkey. As in the case of Jehu, people spread their garments before him. And a large group of disciples praise God for the mighty works he has done through Jesus, and they quote Psalm 118:26. The original says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But here, the disciples say, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” They make it clear that Jesus is the King of Israel. That Psalm was one of several that was sung at Passover, the feast that remembered God’s great salvation of Israel when they were in Egypt. The Psalm is all about God saving his people: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation” (Ps. 118:14). “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (Ps. 118:21). “Save us, we pray, O Lord! O Lord, we pray, give us success!” (Ps. 118:25). The people realize that God has come in the person of Jesus. “The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us” (Ps. 118:27).

That same Psalm says this:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
than to trust in princes (Ps. 118:8–9).

The disciples realize that Jesus is no mere man, no ordinary king. He is the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6–7), the one who has come to reconcile rebellious sinners to their Maker. He is the one you can put your trust in. And we’ll see why we can trust him as we continue to look at this passage.

Part of the reason why Jesus is trustworthy is that he isn’t like a typical king. He doesn’t come on a war horse, or on a chariot, with a great show of power. He’s riding a donkey, accompanied by a rag-tag group of ex-fisherman and other oddballs. Jesus could have arrived in a chariot of gold. He could have ridden into Jerusalem with a great army. But he didn’t. He’s a humble king, born in humble circumstances, living in a small town and working as a carpenter. Imagine how a political leader travels today: in a private plane, and in armored, black SUVs, with bodyguards. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in a minivan with a bunch of nobodies.

But even though Jesus is humble, and doesn’t show off, he knows who he is. He’s not falsely humble or modest. He’s self-assured. When his disciples call him the King, some Pharisees, an important group of religious leaders, tell Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They want him to correct them. But Jesus doesn’t. He knows that he’s the King. He knows that he is worthy of praise. He says that if the disciples were quiet, even the stones would cry out. If no humans praised the Son of God, then creation itself would cry out. Jesus’ humility and his self-confidence seem to be paradoxical, but truly great people don’t need to show off or draw attention to themselves.

Here’s another thing that is paradoxical about Jesus: He was the King that the Old Testament promised would come, but many didn’t recognize him. There are many prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Jesus. Here, Jesus fulfills perhaps two prophecies. Both come from the prophet Zechariah. The more obvious passage is Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It seems that Jesus ordered the disciples to get a colt for him to ride so that he could fulfill this prophecy. Jesus is the righteous king who comes to bring salvation. The very next verse in Zechariah says that this king will bring weapons of war to an end, and that he will “speak peace to the nations” and rule “from sea to sea.” Jesus didn’t bring an end to all wars the first time he came, but he did come to bring peace to those who had been enemies of God. And his rule does extend to the whole world, even though many people don’t recognize that he is the true King.

Another passage in Zechariah, this time in chapter 14, speaks of a day when the Lord will come to Jerusalem to fight for his people. It says, “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward” (Zech. 14:4). When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he came from the Mount of Olives, and I don’t think that’s an accident. When Jesus came, obviously the mountain wasn’t split in two. But the language of the prophets isn’t always literal. It’s often symbolic. The idea of the mountain being split in two is that a path has been opened, and it’s an earth-shattering event. Jesus will later be in the Mount of Olives on the night before he is died. It is where he will be arrested. Jesus knew he had to die. He knew he had to face God’s righteous judgment against sin. He had to drink the cup of God’s wrath, poured out against those who destroy his creation, who rebel against him. Jesus’ grief at that moment is so great at that moment, that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). We might say that Jesus was being split into two as the moment of his sacrifice was approaching.

The prophet Zechariah says, at the end of chapter 14, that all of Jerusalem will be made holy. It ends with this comment: “there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). Jesus will soon go to the house of the Lord, the temple in Jerusalem, and he will cleanse it of traders (Luke 19:45–46). In time, Jesus will replace the temple. There will no longer be a need to offer up animal sacrifices for sin, which couldn’t really pay for the sins of human beings anyway. Jesus himself will be the true sacrifice, the only one need to pay for all the sins of his people, and he will offer himself up on the altar of the cross. All who put their trust in Jesus, instead of putting their trust in themselves or politicians or in anything else, have all their sins removed, wiped out, completely forgiven, and they have access to God. Christians don’t need to go to a special place in order to pray or worship. We do need to come together to worship, to encourage one another, but we don’t need to make a pilgrimage to a holy city. We already have access to the city of God, wherever we are. What Jesus did was earth-shattering.

So, Jesus fulfills prophecy. The Jewish people should have seen this. There are so many ways that Jesus fulfills the promises of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. He is the one born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), the son of a virgin (Isa. 7:14), the one of the tribe of Judah who has a donkey’s colt (Gen. 49:10–11), the son of David anointed by the Holy Spirit (Isa. 11:1–2), the suffering servant who “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3—see Isa. 52:13–53:12). Yet so many of the Jewish people who knew the Scriptures best didn’t recognize Jesus. The Pharisees, who took the Old Testament very seriously, couldn’t connect the dots of Scripture to Jesus. They had eyes that couldn’t see the truth when it was standing right in front of them. And nothing has really changed. So many people today can’t see who Jesus is, even when all the evidence points to his true identity.

And this leads us to the next several verses in Luke. Jesus knew he would be rejected, and he knew that judgment would come to those who reject God’s anointed King. Yet the same King who promises judgment also weeps over the fact that judgment is coming. Let’s read Luke 19:41–44:

41 And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

Jesus is a King who was gladly received by some but who was rejected by many others. Jesus is a King who prophesies destruction for those who reject him. This is something he has done several times in this Gospel. If you read any of the Gospels, this becomes very clear. Those who reject Jesus reject God. You cannot have a right relationship with God without having a right relationship with Jesus. Those who reject Jesus will be condemned for their sin. There is no forgiveness for them.

Yet Jesus isn’t just a tough preacher of hell. Jesus also also weeps over the fact that people reject him. It’s amazing to think that the eternal Son of God, who is all powerful, would weep about anything. But this shows us that God has emotions. He is not cold and impersonal. And even though his eternal plan includes the condemnation of many, it’s not because he doesn’t care.

I want to point out something here in case we come to a wrong conclusion about why Jesus is weeping. Some people would say that Jesus is sobbing because he can’t make people love him, as if he were an unrequited lover. Jesus desperately wants people to believe in him, but he can’t violate their free will, and they don’t believe in him, so he’s really sad. That’s what some people think. But that’s not the case. And the reason we know that is because of what the whole Bible says. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, God has predestined some to salvation, which means all others will be condemned. And God crafted a plan that, for reasons that only he knows fully, includes sin, and all the works of Jesus, including his becoming human and dying on the cross and, later, rising from the grave. And all of this brings God glory. But even in this passage, we see that this is God’s plan. Jesus says, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” The unbelieving Jews should have seen that Jesus came to do “things that make for peace.” But they couldn’t see those things. Why? Because “now they are hidden from your eyes.” Who hid these things from their eyes? When the passive voice is used this way in the Bible, it means that the actor is God. Why God would do this is something of a mystery. But all of this is part of God’s plan. And yet Jesus weeps.

This is all very similar to what happens when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the grave (John 11). Jesus knew that Lazarus was going to die. He says that this is all part of God’s plan to glorify himself (John 11:4). Lazarus had to die so that Jesus could raise him. Jesus knew all of this. Yet when Lazarus died, and his sisters were mourning, Jesus wept (John 11:35). And then Jesus rose Lazarus back to life (John 11:38–45). The Son of God, who is in complete control, weeps that some things must happen.

Jesus is like the prophet Jeremiah. (We’ve been studying Jeremiah on Sunday evenings, and you all are welcome to join us.) Jeremiah was given the difficult task of prophesying to Judah shortly before Judah was destroyed by the Babylonian empire. That destruction came because the people didn’t believe in God. They didn’t respond rightly to his words. Instead of trusting in God, they trusted in the words of false prophets, other messages that said things they wanted to hear. They worshiped false gods, gods they could manipulate. Jeremiah was told he would “pluck up” and “break down,” he would “destroy” and “overthrow,” he would “build” and “plant” (Jer. 1:10). And Jeremiah spoke God’s words to unbelieving people. Like Jesus, he promised destruction to those who didn’t trust God. Like Jesus, he wept (Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17). And, like Jesus, Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.

Here in Luke, Jesus says that enemies will come to Jerusalem and set up barricades to surround the city on every side. These enemies will destroy the people, the city, and the temple. Why? “Because you did not know the time of your visitation.” That means that they didn’t know that God had visited them in the person of Jesus. They didn’t know that Jesus was a man of God. They didn’t realize that Jesus is God.

What Jesus says here comes to pass forty years later. Because the Jewish people will rebel against the Roman Empire, the Romans will retaliate. They will surround the walled city of Jerusalem. And they will then destroy the city and its temple, killing many people in the process. This finally happened in the year 70. This destruction came because of the people’s rejection of Jesus, which was a rejection of God. And the stones of the temple were destroyed because the temple was no longer needed. The true temple, where God meets with his people, where people pray to God, and where sacrifices were offered to God, is Jesus’ body. And Jesus’ body on Earth is the church.

Jesus didn’t just come to tear down and to destroy. He also came to build up. He came to build the kingdom of God on Earth. To build a kingdom, you need citizens of that kingdom. In order for people to become citizens of the kingdom of God, they need to come under God’s rule. But the human condition is that we don’t want that. We don’t want God to be our ultimate authority. We like calling on God when we’re in trouble, but we don’t want God’s words to dictate how we live. That was true of the first human beings. Because they didn’t love God and trust him, they rejected his words. And because of that, God rejected them. He removed them from his special presence, from paradise, where there was no evil and no death. And ever since, humanity has been living in a wilderness, struggling with all kinds of evil, and dying. To get back into God’s good graces, we need someone who provides a way back.

We need someone who will take the punishment for our sin that we deserve so that we can be forgiven. We need someone to be exiled so that we can go back home. To be built up as God’s people, we need our sin to be torn down and destroyed. How can God destroy sin without destroying us?

The answer is Jesus. As a human, he can sacrifice his life for other humans, paying their penalty in full. As the God-man, he is infinite, and can pay not just for one person’s sins, but for the sins of the world. Jesus’ disciples quoted part of Psalm 118, the part that says, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Earlier in that Psalm, it says,

22  The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
23  This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
24  This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it (Ps. 118:22–24).

Jesus is the stone rejected by humans, but who becomes the cornerstone of a new temple. Jesus said that if the Jews didn’t praise him, the rocks would. Earlier, John the Baptist said that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Luke 3:8). In other words, God can make his people out of nothing. It doesn’t matter where you were born, who your parents were, how much sin you’ve committed. What matters is if God takes you and brings you to faith. And if he does that, you have a place in God’s kingdom. In fact, you are a living stone who is part of the true temple of God.

Consider what the apostle Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:4–5:

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

Why does John the Baptist say that God can make rocks into his people? Why does Jesus say that the stones would cry out? Perhaps they had in mind what Peter would write later. God takes people like us, nobodies, and makes them into his people. God takes people like us, undeserving, not particularly powerful or smart or even lovable, and uses us to make his temple. And if we’re part of God’s people, we are a holy priesthood. We’re priests of the King! We don’t have to offer up sacrifices for our sin. That sacrifice was offered when Jesus died on the cross. But we offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and of doing good works (Heb. 13:15–16). We offer up our very lives as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). Or, as Peter says a few verses later, God’s people have been rescued from sin and condemnation so “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are supposed to “abstain from the passions of the flesh,” from our sinful urges. We are supposed to “Keep [our] conduct . . . honorable,” so that when other people see us, “they may see [our] good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:10–11), that day when Jesus comes again in glory.

The question for us today is, Which king are we following? We will follow some authority. We will put our trust in the “princes” of politics or in ourselves, or perhaps in our money or entertainment or in our spouses or other loved ones. But they will all fail us. The one who never fails is Jesus. There has never been a king like him, one who is in complete control yet who would lay down his life, one who is humble yet perfectly self-assured, one who speaks tough words but who also weeps. “Blessed is the King” and blessed are those who come under his authority.

If you are not a Christian, I strongly urge you to consider the claims of Christ Jesus. Do not reject him. No politician will die for you. And they’re certainly not in complete control. No other person can remove your sins and bring you to peace with God. No one else and nothing else will give you eternal life, in a restored world where there is no suffering and no death—that’s another promise that Jesus makes. If you don’t know a lot about Jesus or if you have questions, please talk to me. I would love to help you know more about Jesus. If you are ready to follow Jesus but don’t know how or what that would look like in your life, I would love to help you get started.

If you are a Christian, live like Jesus is your King. Praise him. Don’t be afraid of what others say, the ones who reject Jesus. Some of them may come to “glorify God on the day of visitation.” And let us imitate Jesus as far as we are able. We aren’t in complete control. We aren’t the rulers of the universe. We can’t pay for the sins of others. But we can be humble and do God’s will. We can be tough-minded and tender-hearted, speaking truth with tears in our eyes to people who may not listen. Let us tell others about our King. Perhaps one way to start a conversation with people is to ask who or what they put their trust in. Ask people who their ultimate authority is. They may never have thought about that before. Then tell them about who your ultimate authority is.

“Blessed is the King” and blessed are his people. May the Lord bless us.

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

[podlove-web-player post="2523"]

Blessed Is the King (Luke 19:28-44)

Who is your ultimate authority? Who is your king? There has never been a king like Jesus, in complete control, yet laying down his life, prophesied yet not recognized, accepted by some and rejected by others, who promises judgment to those who reject him yet who weeps over that fact. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 19:28-44 on October 6, 2019.

Engage in Business until I Come

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 29, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” Have you heard that before? That line was being said a few years ago against anyone that would dare say that marriage has a fixed definition: it is a complementary union of a man and a woman, a relationship that is meant to last a lifetime. People who wanted to redefine the institution of marriage assumed that they were “progressive” and “on the right side of history.” Anyone who stood in their way, who held to the definition of marriage that the Bible states clearly, the one that God created and Jesus affirmed (Matt. 19:4–6), was somehow on “the wrong side of history.” They were likened to people who tried to stop the abolition of slavery (or desegregation in schools or in any other public place).

“You’re on the wrong side of history!” is a nice bit of rhetoric. It’s a threat, really. After all, who wants to be on the wrong side of things? And who wants to be viewed as some regressive, backwards bigot? I doubt that any of us want to be viewed that way.

But think about that argument for a moment. What does it even mean to be on the wrong side of history? Does it mean we’ll be viewed as on the wrong side in a year or two? What does that matter? Imagine that Adolf Hitler had said, at the beginning of World War II in 1939, that all who opposed the Third Reich were on the wrong side of history. That might have appeared the case for a year or two. But it certainly wasn’t the case after D-Day, in 1944. At that time, people might have said, “Hitler, you’re on the wrong side of history!” Less than a year later, he committed suicide and Allied forces celebrated victory in Europe. And it would be hard to imagine how Hitler could possibly be vindicated at any later date. So, it seems that at any point in history after 1945, Hitler will be on the wrong side of history.

But there are many cases that aren’t so clear cut. How do we know when to judge people as being on the wrong side? Do we pronounce such judgments twenty years later? Fifty years later? One hundred years later? Even then, we could be mistaken.[1]

Take the case of Christianity. Obviously, when Jesus died, many people probably thought he was on the wrong side of history. But Jesus rose from the grave on the third day, so it’s hard to say that he’s on the wrong side of history or even death. Still, many people don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave. Christians were persecuted at different times in the Roman Empire. It would have been easy for unbelieving Jewish leaders to say of the first group of Christians, who were also Jews, that they were on the wrong side of history. Gentile pagans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history. A little over thirty years after Jesus died on the cross, Christians faced persecution under Emperor Nero. There was another wave of persecution in the late first century under Emperor Domitian. As late as the early fourth century, almost three hundred years after Jesus died, there was another outbreak of persecution under Emperor Diocletian. At any point in time during those years, Romans could have said that Christians were on the wrong side of history, and that might have seemed plausible.

But history is a funny thing. Fast-forward a couple of millennia, and there are supposedly two billion Christians in the world. I think the number of true Christians is significantly less, but the point is that there are a lot of Christians in the world. And, last time I checked, there is no Roman Empire.

My point is that you can’t really know what’s going to happen in history. How do we know what will happen throughout history? How do we know where history is going?

Different worldviews say different things about history. It used to be that many people thought that history was cyclical. The Stoics, a group of people who held to a certain Greek philosophy, believed that the world was destroyed in a series of fires. History goes in cycles, round and round again. Their view of history has been summarized this way: “Once upon a time, there was nothing but fire; gradually there emerged the other elements and the familiar furniture of the universe. Later, the world will return to fire in a universal conflagration, and then the whole cycle of its history will be repeated over and over again.”[2] It’s hard to see how anything would matter in such a view of the world. There could be no lasting progress or achievement. You just go round and round on history’s carousel.

That may seem like an odd view, but it’s not totally different from the view that some people have today. Those who believe in reincarnation believe in some form of cyclical history. Some believe we are in the midst of a countless number of big bangs and big crunches of our universe. These people believe that there is no god, and no purpose to life. While not all atheists share that view of an endless series of big bangs and big crunches, all atheists believe we’re here because of some accident. Somehow, the universe got started, without a creator or a designer, and it has developed throughout a long period of time, improbably leading to all the complexity of life we find today. But it will all end, at least in our solar system, when the sun dies, billions of years from now. Whatever we’ve accomplished ultimately won’t matter. A famous atheist, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that the world is “purposeless” and “void of meaning.”[3] He says that we are “the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms,” that nothing “can preserve an individual life beyond the grave,” that “all the labors of the ages” and “the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”[4] In an equally cheery passage, Russell writes, “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain . . . . One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.”[5]

Strangely, Russell didn’t seem to be bothered by this. He thought it was noble to carve out some meaning for one’s life, even if there really is no ultimate point. He wrote, “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only . . . to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces” that will trample over him one day.[6] It’s hard to see how self-made shrine bound for destruction is worthy of worship.

If there’s no purpose to life, there is no goal of history. If history has no goal, no final day of reckoning, there’s no wrong side of history. There’s no right side of history, either.

So, is history just an accident? Perhaps Macbeth was right when he said:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.  [7]

Or perhaps history is not an accident, and not an endless cycle, but perhaps it’s going somewhere. Perhaps history has a certain beginning and a certain ending. Perhaps it has meaning and purpose.

But how can we know that? How can know where it’s all going? We would need God to tell us. And God has told us. When we look to the pages of the Bible, we see that God has given us a broad outline of all of human history. It has a certain shape, marked by significant events. It has a definite beginning: God created the universe to be his temple, a theater to display his glory, and the great actors in that theater are human beings, made in God’s image and after his likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). We were made to worship God, love him, serve him, represent him on Earth, reflect his greatness, and obey him. But after Creation, the first act of the great drama of the Bible, comes the second act, the Fall. The first human beings decided that they didn’t want to follow God’s script. They didn’t want to obey God. They didn’t trust that God was good. They wanted to be like God. And as a result, everything in this world has become polluted, cracked, broken, tainted. Once there was no hate and war, and not even a hint of death. But now, when sin entered the world, everything changed. When humans turned away from God, the source of light, love, beauty, truth, and life itself, God gave them over to their desires. He said, more or less, “You don’t want me? Fine. Go your way.” And when we turned from God, we found the opposite of light, love, beauty, truth, and life. We found darkness, hate, ugliness, lies, and death.

The whole story of the Bible is basically a rescue mission, an adventure story of how humanity can get back to God. The path back to God truly opens up again with the third act, Redemption. God sends his Son into the world to fulfill his design for humanity. Only God the Son, who is truly God and also becomes truly a man, lives the perfect life. He is the perfect image of God. And though he lived a perfect life, he dies in place of his people. He takes their punishment so they can be forgiven. He is sealed in a tomb so that they can go free. He is exiled so that they can come back home.

It’s a wonderful story, and it’s potentially a sad one. It would be a tragedy it not for the fact that Jesus rises from the grave on the third day, triumphing over sin and death. His resurrection shows that he defeated sin on the cross. Death can’t stop him. And all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the dead in bodies that can never be destroyed. But that great day of resurrection is in the future, in the final act of the Bible’s story, Consummation. We only get glimpses of what life will be like when all is restored, when God’s plans are consummated. But what we understand is that all God’s people will live with God forever in a world that has been remade, purged of all evil, cleansed of all sin, recreated so that there is only peace and life, not conflict and death.

But there’s a long period of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of his people. There’s a long period of time between the coming of the King of kings to inaugurate his kingdom, and the return of that King, to establish his kingdom fully. We live in those in-between times. And what do we do during that time? We use what Jesus has given us for his purposes, to the glory of God.

We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. Today, we’ll look at one parable that Jesus told, a story that tells us some important truths about the kingdom of God. Jesus was about to go Jerusalem, and his followers thought that he was the Messiah, the descendant of the great king of Israel, David. The Messiah was the one who was going to make everything right. He was going to defeat all powers that were against God and his people. He would overthrow all opposing forces, which in their minds included the Roman Empire. Jesus tells this story to correct their expectations.

Let’s now take a look at today’s passage, Luke 19:11–27:

11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. 13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ 14 But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ 15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. 16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ 17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ 18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ 19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ 20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ 22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to the one who has the ten minas.’ 25 And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten minas!’ 26 ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’”[8]

Most of that passage is a long parable about a king and his servants. That story could be interpreted in many different ways. The only clue that Luke gives us is verse 11. He says that Jesus tells this parable “because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Jesus had already said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are under God’s rule and blessing, where God is present with them. The God-man, the King of kings, was there in their midst, so he could rightly say the kingdom of God had come. But it wasn’t going to arrive in its fullest form when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He wasn’t going to receive a golden crown, sit on a glorious throne in a palace, and command an army to defeat all his enemies. Instead, he was going to go away. And while he’s gone, he expects his followers to be engaged in a certain kind of business.

The story itself isn’t too hard to understand. There’s a nobleman who leaves to go to a “far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return.” Before he leaves, he gives ten servants one mina each. A mina was a coin worth about three or four months of wages. So, the nobleman left them all a very significant amount, but not a massive amount, perhaps equivalent to $10,000 to $15,000. Then, the nobleman tells his servants to “engage in business until I come.” We’re not told how long the nobleman is gone, but he expects his servants to use that money to make more money.

Before continuing with the story, let’s think about how this relates to Jesus. Jesus is the nobleman who, after dying on the cross and rising from the grave, will go to a “far country,” heaven, to receive his Father’s kingdom. In a sense, the Son of God always possessed this kingdom, but the New Testament says that upon Jesus ascending into heaven he is exalted. As God, Jesus has always possessed the kingdom. As a man, the Davidic King, he sits on his throne when he goes to heaven. His work has been accomplished.

While away, Jesus has given his servants a task to do. He has given all Christians different callings and different spiritual gifts. We may not all do the exact same thing for Jesus, but we are all expected to engage in Jesus’ business while he is away. We have no idea how long he’ll be gone. He might return in a few years or in a millennium or more. But while he’s gone, he expects us to use what he has given us.

Now, back to the details of the parable. After the nobleman leaves on his journey, his citizens get together a delegation and they go to the authority who is going to give this nobleman his kingdom. This delegation expresses what the citizens are thinking: “We do not want this man to reign over us.” The story has some parallels to something that happened in history about thirty years earlier. After Herod the Great died—he was the ruler of Judea when Jesus was born, and he was the one who had the infant boys of Bethlehem killed—his kingdom was divided among his three sons. His sons had to have their rule confirmed by the Roman Empire. So, Archelaus, one of the sons, went to Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time. Before he left for Rome, Archelaus entrusted his castle and his wealth to his officers. After leaving, the Jews revolted. They didn’t want Archelaus as their king. They sent a delegation of fifty men to Rome to oppose Archelaus. Augustus decided that Archelaus wouldn’t be called a king, but instead he would be an ethnarch, a ruler of his people, until he could prove himself to be worthy of the title of king. When Archelaus returned, he removed the high priest and replaced him.

What does this have to do with Jesus? Well, perhaps Jesus is saying, “You know what happened with Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great? That’s kind of what will happen with me.” The details of the Archelaus story, and the details of this parable, can’t be mapped onto Jesus’ story exactly. That’s not how parables work. But there are certainly many people who don’t want Jesus to be their king. Of course, they can’t send a delegation to God the Father to complain. And they wouldn’t want to do that, anyway. But they rebel against God and his Son all the same.

Well, what happens when this nobleman returns? He checks the work of his servants. Did they engage in business while he was away? One servant was able to take his mina and make ten minas in profit. And he receives a commendation: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” He took his relatively modest sum of money and made a ten-fold profit. And as a reward, he has authority over ten cities. He has proven that he is responsible, and he is given more responsibility. Something similar happens with another servant. He has made five minas, and he then is rewarded with authority over five cities.

Then, there is a third servant. When called to account, he says that he hid his coin. He didn’t put it in a bank, or even bury it in the ground, but wrapped it in a cloth. That’s not the best kind of safekeeping. And he offers a lame excuse as to why he didn’t do anything with that coin. Then he says that did this because he was afraid of the nobleman. He calls him a “severe man” who takes what he didn’t deposit and reaps what he didn’t sow. Think about his: if this servant really was afraid of the nobleman, he would have worked hard to make something with the money he had been given. Also, the nobleman has just rewarded two servants with positions that far outweigh what they had made for him. So, it doesn’t appear that he is harsh or greedy. So, it seems this servant is making a very poor excuse. In reality, he doesn’t know, trust, and love the nobleman. And, as a result, the coin he had is taken and given to the one who had made ten minas.

What does this have to do with Jesus? When Jesus returns in glory, he will judge everyone who has ever lived. And we will have to give an account for our lives. As I’ve said before, I don’t know exactly how this will work. We’re not given all the details. But what we’ve done in this life will be examined. As the apostle Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 4:5, when “the Lord comes,” he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” Those who have served Jesus will be given some kind of reward. But that reward isn’t probably what most people think. We tend to think in terms of money. But notice that the servants who made money weren’t given money. They were given authority. The truth is that all Christians will receive the greatest reward possible: God himself. There is nothing greater than God. All Christians will be in the direct presence of God for eternity. You can’t top that. But we’re given some hints that Christians will have different positions in eternity, perhaps some who have been particularly faithful in this life will have greater responsibilities.

Perhaps we can think of an analogy in sports. Those who work hard in practice will be rewarded with more playing time. The quarterback who learns the playbook thoroughly and works hard to execute the plays exactly as the coach imagined them will be rewarded with a starting position. The one who is lazy and doesn’t do what the coach wants will be but cut from the team. In that way, “to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

What does this have to do with us? If you’re truly a servant of Jesus, you’ll do what he wants during this time in history when he is “away,” in the “far country” of heaven. And when he returns, he will reward your work. The reward may simply be, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” It might mean that you will have some wonderful things to do in eternity in the new creation. Whatever it is, Jesus will acknowledge your work. What you have done will not be have been done in vain.

In this parable, the third servant showed he wasn’t a servant at all. He made a lame excuse. And what he had been given was taken away. There are some people who think they’re Christians. They think they’re Christians because they believe some statements about Jesus are true. But Satan knows those truths even better than Christians do (James 2:19), and he won’t be with God for eternity. Just because someone has said they believe in Jesus doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian. Just because someone has been baptized doesn’t mean they’re truly a Christian.

Salvation is a gift. It is not something earned. But, salvation is a work of God, and it’s not just about having sins forgiven. That’s a huge thing, but that’s just one facet of salvation. Salvation also includes being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, being a new person. When God saves a person, he starts to transform that person. So, a real Christian should, over the course of his or her Christian life, have some works to demonstrate that change. The apostle Paul said we’re saved by grace through faith, and this is not our work. But he says we’re saved to do good works (Eph. 2:8–10). James, the brother of Jesus, says that a so-called “faith” without works is a dead faith. It’s not real at all (James 2:17). Faith is demonstrated by works (James 2:18). Works are not the root of our salvation, but they are fruit of our salvation.

So, on judgment day, I expect that there will be many who thought that they were Christians who are surprised to learn that they never really trusted Christ. If they truly loved him, they would obey him (John 14:15, 21, 23).

And, speaking of judgment day, in this parable, the noble man will punish those who were opposed to him, the ones who said, “We do not want this man to reign over us.” And we’re told Jesus will do the same. Now, some people think Jesus would never do such a thing. But the Bible doesn’t flinch away from punishment. In the Old Testament, several men of God slaughtered God’s enemies. Joshua killed five Amorite kings (Josh.10:16–27). Samuel killed Agag, the king of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:32–33). Elijah slaughtered hundreds of prophets of Baal (1 Kgs. 18:40). Don’t think that this is just some Old Testament violence. The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as a greater Joshua, slaying those who refuse to repent (Rev. 19:11–21). That’s just one picture of condemnation (similar to 2 Thess. 1:5–10). Another is sending people into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 25:30). Another picture is the damned being thrown into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:14–15). These are all images of a reality that is too awful for us to fully appreciate. It’s what we deserve. We are all like those people who say, “We don’t want this man to be our king!” If God hadn’t changed our hearts, we would reject him still.

If you think all of this is too harsh, you need to understand how serious our sin is, how great a rejection of God it is. And you need to remember that Jesus himself subjected himself to violence. He volunteered to become a man, to be hated, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed in a gruesome way. His death wasn’t an accident. It was the triune God’s plan, so that sin could be crushed without having to crush all sinners.

Jesus isn’t a harsh King. He’s a king who sacrifices himself so that we can live. He’s a King who will richly reward us for our service to him. He has given us a modest amount of time, a modest amount of money, a modest amount of talents, a small amount of opportunities and spiritual gifts. He expects us not to receive those things and hide them. He wants us to put them to use. We may not all do massive things for the kingdom of God. Living a quiet life of humble obedience to Jesus may not look great in the world’s eyes. But doing that is huge in God’s eyes. And he will reward us.

Our reward will be to live with him forever, and to have even greater responsibilities in the new creation. What will that be like? I don’t know. But this life is a shadow, and the substance is eternity, a never-ending existence. Will we serve God in his kingdom or will we be cast out into darkness forever? If you want to serve in God’s kingdom forever, you will serve in it now. Your refusal to serve now is an indication that you won’t be with God forever. Jesus is warning us not to be like that third servant, the one who truly didn’t love, trust, and even know the king. That servant was no servant at all, and what he thought he had, he lost.

Let us use the gifts that Jesus gives us now, because all of history is pointing to him. Several people, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., have said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[9] The idea is that justice will certainly come, even if it takes a long time to get there. More recently, one Christian author corrected this line: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward Jesus.”[10] Let us get ready for that day when we stand before Jesus by using what he has given us.

Let’s be on the right side of history by being on the right side of Jesus.

Notes

  1. For an assessment of the “wrong side of history” argument, see Kevin DeYoung, “What’s Wrong with the ‘Wrong Side of History’ Argument?” The Gospel Coalition, August 5, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/whats-wrong-with-the-wrong-side-of-history-argument.
  2. Anthony Kenny, A New History of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81–82.
  3. Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 106.
  4. Ibid., 107.
  5. Ibid., 115.
  6. Ibid., 117–18.
  7. William Shakespeare, Macbeth V.v.
  8. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  9. https://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/11/15/arc-of-universe.
  10. Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 204.

 

[podlove-web-player post="2516"]

Engage in Business until I Come (Luke 19:11-27)

Where is history going? Does it have an intended goal? Christianity says that it does, and history’s end is Jesus. We will all have to give an account of our lives to him. What will we do with the time and other resources that he has entrusted to us? Find out how Jesus responds to different people by listening to this sermon, based on Luke 19:11-27, preached on September 29, 2019 by Brian Watson.

Recover Your Sight

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 22, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Though my children are young, they often have homework to do. The other night, Simon had a math sheet with some basic addition problems. Then, he had a sheet with words that he had to place in categories based on their vowel sounds. Simple stuff. As he was working on them, I could see the answers immediately. But he couldn’t. And that’s the way it is for many areas of life. Some of us can see things that others can’t. Some people can look at a broken machine, like a car, and immediately see what’s wrong with it, while others of us wouldn’t have a clue. Some people can look at what’s in the fridge and in the cupboards and immediately see the ingredients of a meal, while some of us have a hard time boiling water. Some can see in their mind’s eye how a room could be repainted and redecorated, with the furniture rearranged, to renovate a living space. Some of us can see groupings of letters and see a foreign language that we understand, while others see only gibberish.

Some of us can see what others can’t see. Some us could see those things with a bit of help. Others of us could never see those things.

And that’s how it is with spiritual realities. Some people will immediately apprehend the things of God. They see the light, so to speak. Other people have an interest in those realities but need help seeing. Many will never see those things. Some of those people will be indifferent and apathetic. Others will try to keep other people from seeing what they cannot.

We will see this in two passages in the Gospel of Luke that are back-to-back. We’ll begin by looking at how Jesus heals a blind man who cries out for mercy. That’s in Luke 18:35–43. Then we’ll look at how Zacchaeus comes to faith in Jesus in Luke 19:1–10. I think Luke means for us to see these two episodes together, juxtaposing them to show how two different men come to see Jesus, and how both faith and repentance are necessary for salvation. We might miss this juxtaposition because of the way one chapter number ends and another begins. But keep in mind that chapter numbers were added to the biblical text in the thirteenth century and verse numbers in the sixteenth century. They help us find passages, but they’re not part of the original biblical text, and sometimes they create divisions where divisions shouldn’t be.

With that being said, let’s begin by reading Luke 18:35–43:

35 As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” 42 And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” 43 And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.[1]

For some time, Jesus has been approaching Jerusalem (since Luke 9:51). That is where he will die by crucifixion. Here, he approaches Jericho, the only specific location mentioned in this section of Luke. He’s getting close to his last days before dying. He knows his death is coming, but he isn’t hiding. He’s not running away from it. He will perform one last miracle outside of Jerusalem to show who he is and what he came to do.

As Jesus approaches, he passes a blind man. This man is begging. He is completely relying upon the mercy of others to help him. The man hears a crowd, and since he can’t see what’s happening, he asks others. They tell him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Clearly, Jesus has a public reputation. People have heard about his miraculous healings and his teachings. I suppose the mention of Nazareth is important. This is where Jesus grew up, but it’s also where he was earlier in Luke, when he began his public ministry. He famously read a portion of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, which says:

18  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, citing Isa. 61:1–2).

Jesus said he came to fulfill that Scripture (Luke 4:21). He came to do all those things, including bringing sight to the blind.

The blind man can’t see Jesus, but when he hears that Jesus is coming, he can see something that no one else could. He sees that Jesus is the “Son of David.” He’s the only one in Luke’s Gospel to call Jesus that. David was the great King of Israel who reigned roughly a thousand years earlier. David was told that one of his offspring would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16). This Son of David would be born, but he would also be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace,” and he would establish peace forever as he ruled with justice and righteousness (Isa. 9:6–7). He would be anointed by the Holy Spirit and would bring about an era in which there is more death. The nations would come to him (Isa. 11:1–10). At least, that’s what passages in the Old Testament promised. The blind man could see that Jesus was the one to fulfill these promises. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed King in David’s lineage. He was the one who can fix the brokenness of the world.

So, the blind man calls out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” But the crowd rebukes him, telling him to be quiet, just the way that Jesus’ disciples rebuked people who brought infants to Jesus (Luke 18:15). They thought Jesus was too important to be bothered. But the blind man won’t be shut up. He continues to call on Jesus. He perseveres in faith, because he knows Jesus is his only hope of seeing again.

Jesus isn’t too important for the blind man. Jesus hears him. Jesus stops and asks the man what he wants. Of course, the blind man wants to see again. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, said that God was going to “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). That is what Jesus does here. He realizes that this blind man has put his faith in him, and he heals the man. He simply says, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.”

And with that, the blind man sees. And what does he do? He follows Jesus, something that all people who respond rightly to Jesus do (Luke 5:11, 27–28; 9:23, 59, 61; 18:22, 28). He also glorifies God, giving God the credit for his healing and praising him. Again, in Luke, Jesus’ miracles lead to people glorifying God (Luke 1:64; 2:20; 5:25–26; 7:16; 13:13; 17:15; 19:37). Other people also praise God for what Jesus has done for this blind man.

This blind man is a model of faith. He realizes his poor condition. He knows he can’t fix his own blindness. He realizes that others can’t, either. And he sees that Jesus is the only one who can. He recognizes who Jesus is and he calls out to him for mercy. Faith is the instrument through which this man is healed. He could already see the truth, and the truth set him free.

The fact is that this man could see much better than many others. Many people don’t see who Jesus really is. That is because they are spiritually blind. The apostle Paul, Jesus’ great messenger, once wrote that the message about Jesus, the gospel (which means “good news”) is “veiled” to people who can’t see its truth. But then he wrote this:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:3–4).

Those who can’t see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” are blind. They can’t see what’s really there. This good news is good in light of some other news we find in the Bible. God made us in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means we are supposed to represent him on Earth, ruling over the world by first coming under his rule and blessing. We are supposed to reflect his glory; when other people look at us, they should get some idea of what God is like. But we don’t represent and reflect God well. God is perfect in every way. He is love (1 John 4:8, 16). We are often not loving. He is righteous. We often do what is wrong. God made us to love him, worship him, serve him, and obey him. We don’t do that. He made us to love each other, and we often fail there, too. And the bad news for all of us is that God demands righteous people. He can’t have unrighteous people making a mess of his creation. So, God gave us a partial punishment for sin. He removed us from his special presence, which means living in a fallen world, in which there are bad things like natural disasters, diseases and disabilities, including blindness, and death. And if we continue to reject God through our lives, even until we die, we would be condemned after that to live an eternal life apart from God’s presence and blessing. We call that hell. That’s what we deserve.

Yet the good news is that God sent his Son, who took on a human nature, becoming more than just God, but also a human. And Jesus of Nazareth is that Son of David who will bring about peace and justice and who will rule forever. He is the only human who has ever been perfectly righteous, always doing what is right, always obeying, honoring, and worshiping God the Father, always loving other people. He is the true image of God. When we look at Jesus, we can see what God is really like. Jesus came to fulfill God’s designs for humanity. If we would only turn to him, we would find healing. Perhaps not in this life—Jesus never promised that he would heal every disease or fix all the world’s problems when he came that first time. But, in the end, Jesus will fix all those problems. And that is great news.

Not everyone can see this. But the blind man could. God must have given him that ability to recognize who Jesus is. I already quoted the apostle Paul’s words about our spiritual blindness. Right after what I read earlier, in 2 Corinthians 4, he writes this: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Just as God created the universe, he can recreate us to be the people he wants us to be. He can shine light into our darkness, revealing the truth, showing that his glory is on display in the person of Jesus. If see our sad condition, as people who have sinned against God, and we see who Jesus truly is, and we come to trust Jesus as our only hope and help in this life and the next, then we can be healed.

That is what faith looks like. But faith is one side of the coin of salvation. The other side is repentance. And we get a model of repentance is the next episode in Luke’s Gospel. Let’s read Luke 19:1–10:

1 He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Jesus now enters Jericho, and again he is attracting attention. A crowd has come to see him. Among the people is a man named Zacchaeus, who isn’t just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. As I’ve said before, tax collectors had bad reputations in first century Israel. They were known for collecting more taxes than they needed to and for pocketing the excess taxes. In other words, they were dishonest and greedy. But far worse than that, they were viewed as traitors. They helped the Roman Empire, the superpower of the world at that time and the occupying force in Palestine, collect taxes. They were aiding and abetting the enemy. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. This meant that he had paid the Roman Empire for his position. The Romans farmed out tax collection to people like Zacchaeus, who would pay the Romans what they needed once a year, and then had taxes collected in his area. He was free to charge more than what he needed, and he pocketed the excess funds. That’s how he became rich.

I used to deliver The Salem Evening News, a local newspaper, for about two years when I was a boy. I had about twenty-five papers delivered to me, and I had to deliver those papers and collect money from the customers. I think the price was something like $1.60 per week at that time. I had to pay the newspaper company each week, and I was allowed to keep whatever was left over. If I told the customers that the price was $2.50 or $3.00, and then I pocketed the rest, I would be like a tax collector. If I was the guy who delivered the papers and collected from the paperboys, telling them to pay more than they needed to, I would be like Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector.

Zacchaeus wasn’t just a tax collector who was rich. He was also short. He had a problem seeing over the taller people in the crowd. Earlier this year, I attended the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade in Boston. I had to go into the city for something, so I decided I would watch the parade, too. The city was packed, and when I arrived there, it was hard to find a space along the parade route. I did manage to find a spot on Tremont Street, and though there were some people on the sidewalk in front of me, I could see the parade because I’m fairly tall. But there were others who couldn’t. I was across the street from the Granary Burying Ground, right next to Park Street Church, on the edge of Boston Common. There was a man who went through that cemetery and climbed onto a large stone pillar or column in order to get a better view. The police kindly invited that man to come down.

That’s like what Zacchaeus does here. Since he can’t see well, and since he really wants to see Jesus, he climbs a tree. Other people probably thought he looked foolish, but he didn’t care about their opinion. After all, they already hated him for being a tax collector.

When Jesus passes by, he calls out to Zacchaeus. He calls the tax collector by name. How did Jesus know his name? It’s probably because he doesn’t just have a human mind, but he also has a divine mind, and God is omniscient. (See John 1:47–48 for a similar event.) Jesus knows this man.

Jesus asks Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and he gives him a reason: “I must stay at your house today.” This is odd. Why must Jesus stay at this man’s house, this man with whom he hasn’t had a relationship yet? Luke often uses the language of “must” to describe things that Jesus had to do, or things that had to happen (Luke 1:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:16, 33; 15:32; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44). Theologians call this “divine necessity”—these things have to happen because they are part of God’s eternal plan. Jesus had to spend time with Zacchaeus because Jesus came to save people like Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus responds to Jesus eagerly. He comes down from the tree with joy. If one of the Patriots asked me to come out of the crowd and get on one of their duck boats, I would have been full of joy, too. But Jesus is far more important than a star football player. And Zacchaeus seems to know this.

Though Zacchaeus is excited about Jesus, the crowd isn’t excited about what Jesus is doing. They grumble. They complain that Jesus is going to go the tax collector’s house. The Jewish religious leaders have already grumbled that Jesus would spend time with tax collectors and other sinners, and that he would even dare to eat with them (Luke 5:30; 15:2). In their eyes, such sinners were too unrighteous, too unclean to spend time with. How could Jesus be a teacher and even a prophet, much less the Messiah and the Son of God, if he’s hanging out with deplorables like Zacchaeus?

But the grumbling crowd doesn’t seem to affect Zacchaeus and Jesus. When Zacchaeus is in Jesus’ presence, he announces a change in his life. He is now going to give half of his belongings to the poor. On top of that, he is going to give back four times as much as he defrauded from others. In the Old Testament Law, the Israelites were required to give away about 20 percent of their earnings. This was considered generous. Zacchaeus went far above and beyond what Israelites were supposed to give away. And the harshest penalty for stealing, in terms of paying back what one took, was to give four or five times the amount taken (Exod. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6). But Zacchaeus does this, and he seems to do this voluntarily. That’s because he has come to see how he has been greedy and dishonest, and he has come to see who Jesus is. If he wants to follow Jesus, he must renounce his old ways. He must straighten up and fly right.

This is what repentance looks like. When we put our trust in Jesus, we realize that we cannot fix ourselves and that only Jesus can make us whole. Salvation is a gift, but it’s a gift that is meant to change us. We can’t have real faith in Jesus if there’s no change in our lives. We must repent of our sins, turning away from our old ways of doing things. Zacchaeus repented of taking too much in taxes. That’s exactly what John the Baptist had told tax collectors to do in Luke 3:12–13. And he freely gave away what he didn’t need. He must have realized that Jesus came, not to collect taxes from him, but to pay his debt. And if Jesus gave Zacchaeus everything, the least that Zacchaeus could do was share his wealth with others. He is the opposite of the rich man that we met last week (Luke 18:18–23). That rich man refused to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus is that rare camel who fit through the eye of the needle, all because of the grace of God. God had opened up his eyes to see the glorious face of Jesus. When Zacchaeus could see rightly, he gave away what he didn’t need, and he tried to make up for his dishonesty. That is repentance.

When Jesus hears what Zacchaeus resolves to do, he declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus. And he says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham. As a Jewish man, Zacchaeus could already trace his ancestry back to Abraham, the great father of the Israelites who lived about two thousand years earlier. When Jesus says that Zacchaeus is a son of Abraham, I think he’s saying that he is a true son of Abraham. That means he, like Abraham, is trusting God. Abraham trusted God’s great promises to him, and that faith was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Zacchaeus trusts Jesus and he is declared righteous. The apostle Paul says that the true children of Abraham are those who have faith in Jesus (Rom. 4:16–17; Gal. 3:7–9, 29).

Jesus also states why he came. In verse 10, he says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus is the “Son of Man,” a divine figure prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 7:13–14). He came to find the lost and to save them, the way a shepherd looks after lost sheep. Jesus knows who his sheep are. In this case, he came to find a particular sheep named Zacchaeus.

Jesus doesn’t say here how he saves the lost. As I said earlier, part of how he saves the lost is by living the perfect life that we should but do not live. But that’s only one side of the coin. Just like faith can’t be separated from repentance, Jesus’ righteous life can’t be separated from his atoning death. When he died on the cross, he paid the penalty of sin that we should pay. He didn’t just die a terribly painful physical death. That would be bad enough. But on the cross, he experienced the wrath of God, God’s righteous judgment against sin. And that is something we can’t fully appreciate. Basically, Jesus experienced hell on the cross. He did this so that all his people could be set free from condemnation and eternal death. All who come to Jesus are credited with his righteousness, his moral perfection, and their sins were credited to him. When he died on the cross, he was regarded as sin itself, and he was crushed. Because God is a holy judge who can’t have sin exist forever in his creation, and because he desires to save lost people like you and me, he took our sin, put it on his Son, and crushed him. And the Son, Jesus, took this on voluntarily.

It’s interesting to compare the blind man and Zacchaeus. Both men were outcasts from society, though for different reasons. The blind man was poor and had to beg. His disability separated him from society. Though he was rich, Zacchaeus wasn’t respected. He was sort of like Martin Shkreli, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company that jacked up the price of their antiparasitic drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill. You might have seen the smug Shkreli in front of members of Congress. He was called “the most hated man in America” and was eventually sent to prison. He was rich, but hated. Zacchaeus was a bit like that.

Both men needed healing. Zacchaeus needed salvation just as much as the blind man. We have a tendency to think that the poor and the sick need salvation more than the prosperous. But the fact is that all have sinned and all are in need of salvation. This includes poor and rich, drug addicts and the clean and sober, people with disabilities and pro athletes.

Both men had a problem with physical vision. The blind man was obviously blind, and Zacchaeus had a hard time seeing over the crowd. But both men pursued Jesus.

Both men were opposed by crowds. But they didn’t listen to the crowds. They persevered in their pursuit of Jesus.

Both men received salvation, and their lives were changed. Both followed Jesus. Both experienced Joy. Both glorified God. They weren’t saved in order to do have easy lives, or to live for themselves. They were saved so that they would follow Jesus and glorify God.

The question for us today is, are we like these men? Do we have the faith of the blind man, seeing what only the eyes of faith can see? Are we repenting like Zacchaeus, not only putting an end to our sinful ways, but also trying to do what is right?

If we have truly come to Jesus, we will trust in him. We will see things that not everyone can see. We will see that God is the Creator of the universe and everything exists for him. The whole point of life is to live for our Maker. We will see that we have failed to do that. And we will see that Jesus is God’s lifeline, the only means we have of coming back to God, of getting into a right relationship with him. We will trust Jesus and we will start living as we should.

If we have the faith and repentance of these men, there may be obstacles in our way, things that might stop us from following Jesus. But we won’t let those obstacles keep us away. A lot of people say they are interested in Jesus, but they let other things stop them from pursuing a relationship with him. I think that being part of a local church is one important part of following Jesus. The church is Jesus’ design for his followers to worship together, live together, declare the gospel together, and teach together. Yet many people make lame excuses for not even showing up when the church meets. The blind man wouldn’t let his blindness stop him from calling upon Jesus. He wouldn’t listen to the crowds who tried to tell him to be quiet, to tell him that he wasn’t important enough for Jesus. Zacchaeus also wouldn’t let the crowds stop him. He didn’t care if he looked foolish climbing a tree. He didn’t care that the crowds grumbled, saying that he was too sinful to spend time with Jesus.

The fact is that Jesus came for people who are unimportant in the world’s eyes. Jesus came for the worst of sinners. He has come. We’re hearing about Jesus right now. Are we responding to him the way that these men did? Are we pursuing him, not letting obstacles stop us? Are we ignoring the crowds, the ones who can’t see who Jesus really is? Are we trusting in Jesus and repenting of our sins? Are we following him and joyfully praising God? If not, salvation has not come to us, and we are not true children of Abraham, true children of God.

If that is where we are, then we need to run to Jesus. I can’t make this happen for you. But if you are starting to see who Jesus is, I would love to tell you more about him. I would love to talk to you about what it would look like for you to follow Jesus. I’d like to talk to you about how you could serve God in this church and help us glorify God together.

But if you are a Christian, keep this in mind. Part of our goal is to tell other people about Jesus so that they, too, can follow him. We want other people to enter God’s kingdom, to be freed from sin and condemnation, and to live forever with God. There will be a lot of people around us who can’t see the truth. Some of them will oppose us. Many simply won’t care. But there will be a few who see. Some might see the truth instantly, like the blind man. Some people might need a little help to see the truth. The world has crowded the truth from their sight, and they need you to tell them the truth, to explain it to them in ways that they can understand. We have to be willing to look for those people and help them.

Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. And all his sheep will be saved. We can save no one. We can’t pay for anyone’s sins. But we can seek out the lost and tell them how they can be saved. We should do this. Yes, many people won’t see the truth. But some will. And they will follow Jesus joyfully, praising God and living lives that glorify him. Let us go out and find those people.

Notes

  1. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

[podlove-web-player post="2508"]

Recover Your Sight (Luke 18:35-19:10)

Those who have faith in Jesus see what others can’t. Those who have faith in Jesus live changed lives, following him and praising God. Hear about two men who could see who Jesus was and what he came to do. Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 18:35-19:10, on September 22, 2019.

To Such Belongs the Kingdom of God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on September 15, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Many of the world’s greatest athletes have had setbacks in their careers. They’ve had injuries that have required them to have surgery. This is true of many of the greatest players in Boston’s sports history, from Larry Bird to Tom Brady. When an athlete is seriously injured and requires surgery, we realize that it’s wise for them to have that surgery so their bodies can heal properly and they can continue their careers in time. Eleven years ago, Tom Brady had a serious knee injury during the first game of the year, one that required knee construction surgery. He missed the rest of that 2008 season. But he returned the next year and has been playing very well ever since.

I doubt that when Brady had surgery, anyone thought that he made the decision to have surgery because he was weak. I don’t think there were critics who said, “Tom, you’re going to have surgery? That’s such a crutch!” Right after surgery, I suppose there was a time when Brady had to use actual crutches, and I doubt people were heckling him by saying, “Crutches? That’s such a crutch!” Yet, strangely, when it comes to the topic of religion, some people think that way. They think that religion is a “crutch” for people who aren’t strong enough to face the world on their own. They think that believing in God, particularly the God of the Bible, is something that comforts people who are too weak to live in a world that is cold and threatening. It’s a far braver thing, in their eyes, to be one’s own lord. Such people gladly quote the famous poem by William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” which ends with these words:

I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

It’s interesting how no one seems to do that with surgeries. What would we think of Tom Brady if, eleven years ago, he refused to have a doctor repairs the ligaments in his knee? Imagine the team doctor is urging Brady to have the surgery, and so are Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft. And Tom Brady says, “I’m not going to have a doctor knock me out and then cut into my body. I am the master of my career, I am the captain of my body.” We would think he was being foolish. Now imagine that Brady says that he realizes he needs surgery, but he’s going to do it on his own. He’ll study a little and then fix himself. There have been player-coaches in the past, players who coached their own team at the same time. Bill Russell and Pete Rose did this at the end of their careers. But I’ve never heard of a player-surgeon.

We realize in some areas of life that when we have a problem, the wisest thing to do is to have someone else fix it. When we have a serious injury or a disease like cancer, the wisest thing is to have a surgeon repair a part of our bodies or remove a tumor. Agreeing to surgery is a recognition that there are problems that we can’t solve on our own. We must let someone else take control of our bodies. We must trust that they can fix us.

The same thing is true when it comes to our human condition. The reality is that we have problems we can’t face. The biggest one is death. Everyone who is thoughtful thinks about the inevitability of death and wants to know how to live triumphantly in the face of that brutal reality. I’m reminded of the work of a French philosopher, who happens to be an atheist, named Luc Ferry. In his book, A Brief History of Thought, he says that all philosophies and religions deal with the reality of death. He says that “Man knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.”[1] Of course, we don’t always think of literal death itself. But we do think of the many faces of death: death of a career (perhaps due to an injury), death of a relationship, death of a season of life, death of our favorite restaurant or TV show, death of a loved one. How do we deal with all this decay and death? Ferry says that “the irreversibility of things is a kind of death at the heart of life.”[2] “To live well, therefore, to live freely, capable of joy, generosity and love, we must first and foremost conquer our fear—or, more accurately, our fears of the irreversible.”[3]

So, what promises us real life in a world of irreversibles? What promises us hope in a world of death? Or, setting aside death for a moment, what can fix this world that is broken by greed, selfishness, war, and corruption? What can fix my broken soul? Is there a doctor who can perform a surgery on the human condition, removing the bad parts, healing whatever good remains?

Christianity promises us that there is a Great Physician who can and will make everything right. It offers us salvation from death and decay. It offers an ultimate healing of our souls and of the whole world.

Since Christianity promises such wonderful things, why aren’t more people Christians? I suppose there are many reasons, all of which can be called unbelief. People don’t believe it’s true. And there many reasons why people don’t believe. One is that they really don’t know what Christianity is and they’ve never been given good reasons to believe. In our society, that happens frequently. People simply don’t know the evidence for Christianity. A second reason is pride: Christianity says there is a King who reigns over the universe and that King is not you. Or, to put it differently, it says that you can’t fix yourself. Christianity requires humility, and the people who think Christianity is simply a crutch are often people who are quite proud. A third reason why people don’t believe is that they already have a god in their lives that they worship. We call this idolatry. Of course, most people don’t think they are worshiping a god or an idol. But whatever is most important to us, whatever we trust in for security and peace and meaning and comfort, whatever we love the most, whatever dictates our behavior, that thing is our true god, the true object of our worship. Christianity says that we must worship the true God and forsake all false gods. Many people don’t want to do that, so they don’t come to Christ in faith.

The reason I bring all this up is because today we’re going to look at a passage from one of the Gospels, one of the biographies of Jesus, that contrasts two types of people. There are children, who can be quite trusting in others. And then there is a proud man whose real god is his wealth. Jesus tells us that to enter into God’s kingdom, to be one of God’s people, to be forgiven of all the wrong we’ve ever done, and to have life eternal, we must have the faith of a child. Jesus also says that those who put their trust in other things will not enter the kingdom of God.

We’ll see all of this in Luke 18:15–34. We’ll start by reading the first three verses. Here is Luke 18:15–17:

15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”[4]

People were bringing infants to Jesus, probably so that he could bless them. The word used here of them, βρέφος, is used of babies, including unborn babies (Luke 1:41, 44). In a world of high infant mortality, perhaps they wanted Jesus to heal them, even preemptively. But when Jesus’ followers see this, they rebuke these people. They probably thought that Jesus was too busy to bother with babies. They were not viewed as important people. But Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, . . . for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Jesus isn’t saying that all babies and toddlers are automatically part of the kingdom of God. He’s not saying anything about infant baptism. He’s making a point about faith. So, he says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Young children rely on parents and other adults for many things. An infant is totally reliant upon a parent for food, clothing, protection, and just about everything short of breathing. A toddler relies on parents for those same things, even though they are a bit older and can walk. Even young children trust their parents to do many things for them. It wasn’t all that long ago that my children were asking us to help them brush their teeth. The point that Jesus is making is not that we should be childish in every way. There are many ways in which we shouldn’t be childish. Children aren’t well educated or wise. They don’t know how to handle the complexities of this world. But Jesus says that we must rely upon God the way that a child relies upon a parent. We must trust that God and God alone can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

God alone can open the wide the gates of his kingdom for us. God alone can remove our problem, our tumor, our disease, the incurable wound of our soul. We call that sin. Sin is all the wrong actions we do. But it’s more than that. It’s a power at work in us, one that distorts our desires. It takes us away from God and causes us to think that we are gods. It’s a failure to love God, to trust him, to worship him, and to obey him. God made us for those things. He made us to have a right relationship with him. But sin destroys that relationship. Sin is what causes decay and death in this world. And the one thing that we can’t do on our own is remove sin and its effects. We cannot uproot it and kill it. It kills us. So, we must trust that God can do this. Such faith honors God.

Luke, the author of this Gospel, contrasts the faith of a child with the faith of a proud man. We see this in the next passage, verses 18–30:

18 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. 24 Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” 28 And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” 29 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Now, someone else comes to Jesus. It’s a ruler, probably a man who had some position of civic or political authority. He was a man of good standing, probably someone very respected, someone very successful and, in the eyes of the world, a good man. He addresses Jesus as a “Good Teacher,” and he asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. In other words, how can I be part of God’s kingdom? The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, promised that there is life after death for God’s people. Death is not the final word. There will be a resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12:2). Those who are part of God’s kingdom will rise to “everlasting life.” They will live with God in a new world, a physical world much like this one but cleansed of all sin. There will be nothing evil, nothing bad. It will be a beautiful and bountiful world in which there is no death (Isa. 25:6–8; 65:17–25).

It’s a bit strange that the ruler would ask, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You don’t do something to inherit something. You inherit something as a gift, usually because you just so happen to be related to someone else who died. But Jesus doesn’t focus on that. First, he asks, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” That is true. The Bible says that all mere human beings are not good (Rom. 3:10–12). In fact, Jesus has already called his disciples evil in this Gospel (Luke 11:13). I think the reason why Jesus says this is not just to claim that he is God. Jesus is not a mere man. He is the God-man. As the Son of God, he has always existed. He is not a created being. But over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. And he alone lived a perfect life. He never did anything wrong. He didn’t sin because he wasn’t tainted by the power of sin. So, Jesus might be saying something like this: “You have called me good, but only God is good. So, if I’m truly good, I must be truly God.” I think what Jesus is really doing is getting this man to see that he, the ruler, is not good. He is also getting the ruler to focus on God, and not on himself.

Then, Jesus says, more or less, “Obey the commandments to inherit eternal life.” Then, he mentions five of the Ten Commandments: don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents. The Ten Commandments were at the heart of the covenant made with Israel in the Old Testament. Basically, God said to Israel, “If you want to remain my people, this is how you’re supposed to live.” The logic of the Bible when it comes to sin is that if it were possible for us never to sin, we would live forever with God. But our obedience must be perfect. Our righteousness must not be relative to others. We can’t say, “Well, I’m better than most people, so that must be good enough for God.” God demands perfection. Jesus is trying to get the ruler to think about whether he has been perfectly obedient, perfectly righteous.

Amazingly, the ruler says, “Oh, I’ve always kept those commands, even from my youth.” Perhaps it’s not too hard to avoid breaking those five commandments, at least in fairly literal ways. However, elsewhere, Jesus says that if we have lust for someone who is not our spouse, we’re committing adultery, and if we hate someone else, we’re committing murder (Matt. 5:21–30). But the ruler didn’t understand that. He sincerely thought he had a perfect record when it comes to those commandments.

But Jesus knows this man’s heart. Jesus left out some other commandments. The first is not to have any other “gods” before the true God. The second is not to make any idols. Jesus knows what this man’s true god is and he asks this man to forsake that god. So, he says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Jesus does not command everyone to sell everything. This is the only time he says that. Next week, we’ll meet Zacchaeus, a wealthy man who leaves his old life to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus gave away half of his wealth, not all of it, and there’s no hint that he failed to do what Jesus required of him.

One thing that’s important to see about Jesus is that he treated people as individuals. He knows the hearts of people. He doesn’t automatically put everyone in groups. He doesn’t say that all rich people are bad and must give away all their wealth. He doesn’t say that all poor people are good and have been unfairly oppressed. In short, he doesn’t play identity politics. He doesn’t lump people together into stereotyped or generalized groups. He is the Great Physician, and part of what makes a doctor great is the ability to accurately diagnose a person’s health. Jesus peers into the soul of this rich man and sees that his true god is money. So, he asks this man to get rid of that god. The best way to remove the grip of greed in your life is to give your wealth away.

But this ruler won’t do it. He won’t part ways with his wealth. Instead, he is “very sad.” The same Greek word is used of Jesus on the night before he died. In that case, it’s translated as “very sorrowful” (Matt. 26:38; Mark 14:26). Jesus has promised him eternal life, a heavenly treasure that can never be taken away from him, and the man won’t make that deal. He was grieved at the thought of it. Jesus then says that it is difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, which is simply an impossible thing.

Why does Jesus say that? Is it that being rich means one is a particularly bad sinner? No. The Bible doesn’t say that the wealthy are worse sinners. The Bible doesn’t say that money itself is the root of all evil. The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Money is a powerful idol, one that promises comfort and security.

I saw a powerful illustration of this in the recent movie called All the Money in the World. It’s based on a real story. The grandson of J. Paul Getty, an oil magnate, was kidnapped by Italians in Rome when he was a teenager. This was in 1973. Getty was recently known as the richest man in the world. The kidnappers demanded a $17 million ransom for the teenager’s release, but Getty refused to pay. At first, he believed that his grandson, Paul, and the boy’s mother, Getty’s daughter-in-law, concocted the kidnapping story as a way of bilking Getty. Later, he finds out Paul has actually been kidnapped, but he still refuses to pay.

In a scene with Mark Wahlberg (who plays a fictional security agent and former CIA agent, Fletcher Chace), Christopher Plummer (who plays Getty) says he can’t pay the ransom because his financial position has never been more vulnerable. There is news of an oil embargo, which has raised the price of oil. However, he fears that the embargo will be lifted and that the price of oil will crash. The two characters then have this exchange:

Chace: We have to pay.

Getty: This simply isn’t possible. My financial situation has changed. . . .

Chace: Mr. Getty, with all due respect, nobody has ever been richer than you are at this moment.

Getty: I have no money to spare.

Chace: What would it take? What would it take for you to feel secure?

Getty: More.

A little over three minutes later in the movie, there’s a scene that teases the audience. Getty is called into a room by a secretary to meet with a man who asks if he’s serious about making payment. Getty says he wouldn’t be meeting with the man if he were not. The man says there can be no more games; payment must be made in cash on that day. Getty asks for proof first. “After you,” says the man. Getty asks a man to give proof of his money; his assistant opens a briefcase containing cash. Then Getty walks to a small painting, which has been under a veil. It is a painting of a mother with a child. The man says, “Because of the painting’s disputed provenance, it can never be publicly displayed.” In other words, this is probably a stolen painting. Getty says he’s disappointed about the painting’s condition and isn’t sure if it’s worth the $1.5 million price. The other man says that true masterpieces rarely go on sale. If Getty is unwilling to pay, he will never own one. So, Getty pays.

Getty was willing to pay $1.5 million for a painting he could never display outside his home, even though he just said he had no money to spare to free his grandson. That is the power of greed. That is a picture of idolatry. He was so attached to his money and the things it could buy that he couldn’t part with it.

But if “the love of money” is an idol, you don’t have to be rich to worship that false god. Poor people can love money just the same. And idols aren’t limited to money. The most important thing in your life could be a relationship, or sex. Some people won’t come to faith in Jesus because it means not having sex outside the bounds of marriage. Some people won’t become Christians because their boyfriend or girlfriend, or their husband or wife, isn’t a Christian. Other people put their careers, or their entertainment, or their devotion to the great god of the gridiron, ahead of Jesus. If Jesus were standing here, looking into your eyes and peering into the depths of your soul, what would he ask you to give up? What would he tell you to forsake?

Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read this:

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23–25)

Inheriting the kingdom is a gift. It’s free. But following Jesus is costly. It requires giving things up. But we gain far more by losing than we could ever gain by keeping. By giving up, we gain God and the whole world. By keeping, we retain our pride and our idol, but we lose everything in the end. Jesus gives us the best of deals. It may appear that we are losing, but when we come to him, we can only gain. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples that though they had left their homes and their careers, they have gained. He says that everyone who is willing to leave their old lives “will . . . receive many more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” We may leave old relationships behind, but we gain new ones in this life. We also gain peace and purpose by becoming Christians. And, in the life to come, we gain a perfect world, real life unending. We will live in a beautiful, joyful world, one full of the deepest pleasures, because we will live with the great being there is, God himself. So, becoming a Christian is not losing. It’s gaining. The missionary Jim Elliot once said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

The disciples, who had given up so much to follow Jesus, wondered how anyone could be saved. How can we be saved from death? How can we be saved from the punishment that we deserve for our sins? How can anyone gain admission to the kingdom of God? If an upright man like this rich ruler couldn’t gain entry, how can anyone else?

Jesus answered the disciples’ question of who can be saved by stating that those who follow him, those who are willing to forsake everyone else, those who trust Jesus the way a young child trusts a loving parent, can be saved. Jesus said that this is impossible for us to achieve. “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” But Jesus didn’t say exactly how God could bring about this impossible state of affairs. How can God save those who can’t merit salvation on their own?

Let’s look quickly at the next four verses in Luke, Luke 18:31–34:

31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

Jesus had already predicted his upcoming death before (Luke 9:22, 44). But this prediction gives us more information. He says that in Jerusalem, where they will soon be, all the things written about “the Son of Man,” a title Jesus uses of himself, will be fulfilled. He will be handed over by the Jewish leaders to the Gentiles, the Romans. He will be mocked and spat upon. He will be flogged. He will then be killed on a cross, a Roman instrument of torture and execution. But on the third day, he will rise from the grave, in a body that can never die again.

The disciples couldn’t understand this. They understood the words Jesus said, but they didn’t believe it was possible. They couldn’t see how Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Messiah, could possibly be treated this way. God hid this understanding from them until Jesus rose from the grave.

But we live on this side of the cross and resurrection, and we have the rest of the Bible. We know that Jesus was killed because of many factors: unbelieving Jews, unbelieving Romans, and even Satan, the devil himself. But ultimately, his death was God’s plan (Acts 2:21–24; 4:27–28). The way that God could do the impossible, saving sinners, is by having someone live a righteous life in their place, die an atoning death in their place, and rise from the grave to show the penalty of sin had been paid in full and that all who are united to Jesus by faith will rise from the grave, never to die again. All who have a childlike faith in Jesus are credited with his righteousness. It’s as if we never sinned. God doesn’t just overlook our sin. No, the sins of all Christians were punished when Jesus died on the cross. And we’re told that all who trust in Jesus will rise from the dead and live with God in paradise forever.

The question for all of us today is, do we believe this is true? Are we willing to trust Jesus? Do we trust that he is the Great Physician, the only one who can heal us? Are we willing to follow him?

If not, perhaps our pride is holding us back. We want to be in charge of our lives. But doing that is foolish. It’s like wanting to be in charge of your own surgery. Perhaps we don’t want to follow Jesus because it means changing our lives, giving up things we know are wrong, or things that we love and cherish too much. Think about this: someone or something will separate you from what you love. If you’re not separated from that idol by something in this life, then death will separate you from it. What you’re clinging to won’t last. And it can’t rescue you from death and from condemnation. What do you love more than God? What do you trust more than God? What dictates your behavior more than God? That is your idol. Give it up and follow Jesus. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to do this now. I would be glad to talk to you personally to help you follow Jesus and to answer your questions. But, Christians, we also must hear the words of Jesus today. We have a tendency to go back to our idols. We have a tendency to not want to follow Jesus, because that path can very well lead to suffering. If the world hated our Master, it will hate us, too (John 15:18–19). But at the end of that path, beyond suffering and beyond persecution, is glory. Beyond even death is the risen Jesus, who will receive God’s children into his kingdom. Let us follow him on that path.

Notes

  1. Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).

 

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To Such Belongs the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:15-34)

How can one be part of God’s kingdom? What can one do to inherit eternal life? We must have a child-like faith in Jesus, trusting that he can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. But pride and false gods get in the way of such faith. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 18:15-34 on September 15, 2019.

God, Be Merciful to Me

This sermon was preached on September 8, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Let’s imagine something for a moment. Imagine you have a job. For some of you, this isn’t all that hard to do. Imagine that your company was recently purchased by a new owner, who has brought in new management. The new management announces that they are going to interview everyone who works for the company. They present this as a “getting-to-know-you” exercise. They schedule interviews with every single employee, including you. At beginning of your interview, they ask you simple questions about you, such as what your role in the company is, how long you’ve worked there, where you went to school, what other kinds of experience you have—that sort of thing. Then they ask you what you do at the company. As they start to ask more specific questions, it dawns on you that they’re not just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to see if they want to continue to employ you. In short, they’re asking you to justify your position with the company. So, you start to give answers that you would give when you interview for a job. You tell them how you work hard, how much experience you have doing your job, how productive you are, how well you get along with your coworkers, and anything else you can think of to convince them that they should keep you on the payroll.

That’s a bit of what “justification” looks like. It means something like an acquittal. Being justified means being viewed as not guilty, as innocent, as in the right, as acceptable. Justification is a big word in Christianity, and we don’t always hear about it in other contexts. But the fact is that we all try to justify ourselves in some way or another. We try to demonstrate that we’re in the right, that we’re good people, that we have the right beliefs and the right behaviors, that we’re people who should be accepted and embraced.

The key question that we all should ask is, How can I be acceptable to God? What sort of justification can I offer to him? We should think along those lines, but there are many people who don’t even realize that we need to be justified in the presence of God. But we do need justification. We need something that makes up for our sin, that reconciles us to God, that shows that we’re acceptable to him, that we’re worthy. What are you relying upon for justification?

Today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see a famous parable that Jesus tells, a story about two people who come to the temple to pray to God. These two people have very different attitudes, and they make two very different speeches. Jesus tells us that only one of them is justified.

Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 18:9–14:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”[1]

Luke tells us up front why Jesus tells this story: Jesus has in mind people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That kind of mindset is opposed to the way of Jesus for two reasons. One, Jesus repeatedly says in different ways that no one is righteous. So, to believe that one is righteous, without sin, not in need of mercy, is to be deceived. Two, those who treat others with contempt fail to see that other people are made in God’s image and likeness. We have no right to act as if we are superior to others, particularly if we realize our own unrighteousness. Jesus probably is addressing this story to the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who were known for their strict adherence to the Hebrew Bible.

The story itself has a setting and two characters. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem. This is where God was worshiped, where sacrifices for sin were offered, and where people prayed. We don’t know if this was one of the twice-daily times of prayer at the temple (at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.) or if the men just happened to go to the temple at the same time to pray individually. The point is that both were going to meet with God.

Then, we are told about the two characters of the story. The first is a Pharisee. There were a few groups of Jewish religious leaders at this time. There was the high priest, as well as the many priests who served at the temple. Then there were two groups of influential Jews. One was the Sadducees, who had more political power but who had unorthodox beliefs. Famously, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. The other group was the Pharisees, who were lay leaders known for taking the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, very seriously. They were very disciplined in their approach. They tried to apply the whole Bible to all of life in very specific, rigorous ways. The apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, was a Pharisee, and he had previously boasted of his adherence to the law (Phil. 3:4–6).

But Jesus has criticized the Pharisees repeatedly for being hypocrites, for not seeing their own lack of righteousness, and for using their positions of privilege to earn money. In short, the Pharisees don’t come out looking good in this Gospel.

The Pharisees have grumbled that Jesus would spend time eating and drinking with obviously sinful people. In Luke 5:30–32, we read this:

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.”

Jesus came to save people from their sin. Sin is a sickness, a rebellion against God but also a powerful, evil force that finds its way into everything we do. The only people who go to a doctor for healing are those who are willing to admit they are sick and need help. The Pharisees still wrestled with sin, but they had lost sight of that fact. They acted as if they were truly righteous and everyone else was not.

We’re told that this Pharisee stood by himself when he prayed. We don’t want to read much into that. There are times when people stand while praying in the Bible (1 Sam. 1:26; 1 Kgs. 8:22). But perhaps he was by himself because he thought he was above everyone else.

At any rate, we are given his prayer. It consists of twenty-eight words in the original Greek. He begins well: “God, I thank you.” It’s good to begin prayers by thanking God. But look what he thanks God for: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He’s basically praying, “God, I thank you that you made me so great. When you made me, you did an excellent job. I’m not like those other sinners. I’m nailing it when it comes to all the religious things.”

The Pharisee thanks God for not making him like sinners. He even is so bold as to point out the tax collector, the other character in this story. “I thank you that I’m not like that poor slob over there.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation for two reasons: one, they often took more than they needed to take. In an era before computers or advanced paperwork, it was easy to tell people they owed more than they actually did. But, perhaps more importantly, tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire. They were Jewish people working for the enemy, the superpower of the day, the occupying force that oppressed Jews. Tax collectors were not only dishonest, but they were traitors. That’s what this Pharisee surely thought.

What the Pharisee is doing is comparing himself to other people. As he thinks about other people, he is evaluating his own moral performance against theirs. By that standard, the Pharisee comes out well. He’s thinking, “I’m not as sinful as them.” He also boasts about his good deeds. He fasted twice a week. Fasting might mean consuming only water and bread (Shepherd of Hermas 5.3.7). The Jews were only commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29; Num. 29:7). They might also fast when mourning or repenting. Pharisees were known to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. They went above and beyond what the law required.

The Pharisee also claims to tithe everything he gets. Israel was supposed to over various tithes of their produce (Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27). A tithe literally means a tenth, though if you added Israel’s tithes, they were supposed to give something like 23.3 percent of their crops. Perhaps the Pharisee is saying that he tithes all his income, or perhaps he means that for everything he spends—for all the stuff that he “gets”—he gives ten percent away. At any rate, he’s bragging about how much he gives to the temple.

Though the Pharisee begins by praying to God, the “prayer” is really all about him. He’s the subject: I thank you, I’m not like other men, I fast twice a week, I tithe everything. I, me, mine.

The other character in this story is the tax collector. I’ve already explained their reputation. It was not good. The Pharisees complained that Jesus ate with such sinners (Luke 5:30) and would spend time with them (Luke 15:1–2). Yet this tax collector humbly makes his way to the temple. Given their reputation, it’s not unreasonable to think that tax collectors didn’t go to the temple often, perhaps because they wouldn’t want to go, perhaps because they knew how they would be viewed by others.

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands. But he stands at a distance. The Pharisee might have gone right into the courtyard of the temple. This tax collector was standing “far off,” perhaps on just the edge of the temple complex. Though some people prayed while looking up to God (Ps. 123:1; Mark 6:41; 7:34; John 11:41; 17:1), this tax collector can’t do that. He feels unworthy to look directly toward God. He beats his breast, a sign of mourning. And he simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the original Greek, his prayer is only six words (compared with the twenty-eight words of the Pharisee).

Now, I don’t often play the “in the Greek . . .” card, but I will here, because it’s important. The way that the tax collector’s prayer is translated hides a couple of important details. First, he literally says, “God, make atonement for me.” He knows he needs God’s mercy. But the way to get mercy from God is if atonement is made. The Greek word used here is also used in Hebrews 2:17, where we’re told that Jesus made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” To be right in God’s eyes, to be acceptable to God, to be forgiven by him, he needs someone who can make God propitious towards him. In other words, he needs someone who can make God look favorably upon him. This man knows that he has nothing to bring to God that can turn away God’s judgment against his sin. He confesses that he’s a sinner. He doesn’t brag about who he is or what he’s done. He simply knows that he needs atonement for his sin, and he knows that God must be the one to atone for his sin. No amount of good works can make up for the sin that he’s committed.

The other interesting detail that is found in the original Greek text is that this man says, “God, make atonement for me, the sinner.” He doesn’t say “a sinner.” Instead, he says, “the sinner,” using the definite article. Why does that matter? It’s like he’s saying, “I’m not comparing myself to other people. I’m not saying that I’m just another sinner, like everyone else around me. I am the sinner who needs atonement for his sins.” The Pharisee compared himself to others and did so favorably: “I’m better than everyone else.” But this tax collector isn’t comparing. He’s not judging himself by that standard. Instead, he’s judging himself against God’s standard. It’s like when the apostle Paul called himself “the foremost” sinner (1 Tim. 1:15).

These two men couldn’t be any more different in their stature in society and in their attitudes. Yet in verse 14, Jesus provides the twist: the tax collector and not the Pharisee went back home justified. The tax collector found favor in God’s eyes. The Pharisee did not. Jesus gives the reason why: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is like so many of the twists that we see in Jesus’ parables: the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was the one who loved his neighbor (Luke 10:25–37); the younger sinful brother came back home and was embraced by his father while the older righteous brother stayed outside (Luke 15:11–32); the rich men went to hades while the poor men went to paradise (Luke 16:19–31).

There are three truths that I want us to see from this parable. The first truth concerns the attitude we should take in approaching God. The tax collector had it right. He humbly approaches God and seeks forgiveness that only God can give. He seeks a solution to his sin that he cannot possibly provide, but that God can. He acknowledges he’s a sinner. He doesn’t compare himself to anyone else. He knows that he stands in need of God’s mercy.

The Pharisee isn’t really praying to God at all. His prayer is really a boast. He compares himself with others and, since he’s relatively obedient to the law, he thinks he’s superior to others. He looks down at “this one,” this tax collector. He brags about all the good things he has done. There’s no awareness that he, too, is a sinner standing in need of atonement. He is justifying himself, assuming that all his good works have put him in the right before God.

The right attitude before God is captured in King David’s famous confession of sin, which we find in Psalm 51. King David had committed adultery, then when he found out the woman was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin by arranging for her husband to sleep with her. When that didn’t work out, he had the husband killed. (See 2 Samuel 11 for the story). When the prophet Nathan called him out for his sin, David confessed that he had done what was wrong, and he asked God for forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:1–13). Look at Psalm 51:1–4:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

David knew that he had ultimately sinned against God, and that he needed God’s mercy. God would be justified in condemning David, but David appealed to God for mercy. He confessed his sin and he found healing and forgiveness.

Later in the same Psalm, David says (in verse 17):

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

He knew that what God wanted was a sign of repentance, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a godly remorse over sin. God doesn’t want pride and boasting. He wants people to realize what they have done, and to come to him humbly and in faith.

That is the attitude a sinful person should have before God. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. We have all failed to love God as we should. We have failed to obey his commandments. We have failed to love other people as we should. We have even failed our own moral standards and moral codes. We have done wrong, and God knows it. He would be justified to condemn us. We must seek the atonement that only he gives.

Of course, not everyone realizes this. Just this past week, I happened to catch a bit of a video clip from an interview between Ben Shapiro and Bishop Robert Barron. If you don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, he’s a relatively young man who is a significant conservative figure. He’s a lawyer, an author, a writer, and a host of a very popular podcast. He’s made appearances on CNN and other television channels. He’s also an Orthodox Jew. So, he had this interview with a Catholic bishop, and at one point, Shapiro asks this question: “What’s the Catholic view on who gets into heaven and who doesn’t?” Then, he immediately adds, “I feel like I lead a pretty good life, a very religiously based life in which I try to keep not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?”[2]

I like Ben Shapiro. I agree with many things that he says. But what he’s doing there is very similar to what the Pharisee does in the parable. He’s claiming that he lives a good life. Actually, Shapiro hedges that a bit to say he lives “a pretty good life.” He claims that he tries to keep the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. (I’m not sure how he keeps all the commandments related to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and offering animal sacrifices.) But I doubt that he does well even with the Ten Commandments. Who has not coveted (Exod. 20:17)? Who hasn’t put something before God in their lives (Exod. 20:3)? Who has always loved God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5)? Who has always loved one’s neighbor as one’s self (Lev. 19:18)? Shapiro doesn’t seem to think he has sins that he can’t make up for.

The Bishop says that Shapiro is not “screwed.” He says that the Catholic Church has taught since Vatican II that people other than Christians can be saved if they follow their conscience. Jesus is the privileged path to salvation, and he must be followed, but the Bishop waters down what that means. He says that the atheist who follows his conscience is actually following Christ, though he doesn’t know it.

Then, Shapiro asks the Bishop if Catholicism is faith-based or acts-based. Shapiro acknowledges that Judaism is an acts-based religious, “where it’s all about what you do in this life, and that earns you points in heaven.” The Bishop says that Catholicism is “loved-based,” which is a nice answer. He does say that Catholicism requires faith, but it is perfected by works. He rightly acknowledges that a relationship with God begins with grace, and that it requires a response that includes obedience, but he suggests that human effort contributes to salvation.

Those are two wrong ways of looking at salvation. This leads me to what Jesus didn’t teach clearly in this parable, and this is the second truth that we should know this morning. How is one saved? What is the basis of salvation? If it’s true what the Bible says, that all of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that even our best acts of righteousness are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6), how can we be saved? The parable makes it clear that we must go to God humbly and ask for mercy. But how does that work?

God is a righteous judge who must punish sin. He promised punishment and exile for sinners. How can God punish sin without destroying all sinners?

God also desires righteous members of his covenant. He demands a righteous people. How can we be declared in the right, innocent, as if we had never sinned but had only done what he wants us to do?

The answer is Jesus. He is the only truly righteous person who has ever walked the face of the earth. He is the God-man, forever the Son of God, yet who added a human nature over two thousand years ago. He alone loved God the Father (and God the Spirit) with his whole being. He alone has never failed to love his neighbor. He alone has obeyed all the commandments.

Yet Jesus died a sinner’s death, bearing the wrath of God when he died on the cross. He was treated like the worst of criminals though he never did anything wrong. He then rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid the penalty for sin in full and to demonstrate that all his people will rise from the grave on day when he comes again in glory. If we trust in him, our sins have already been punished. The apostle wrote to the Colossians that “you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–15). If we have faith in Jesus, if we trust that he is who the Bible says he is and he has done what the Bible says he has done, our sin is paid for, and we are credited with his righteousness.

This can only be accessed by faith, not works. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:15–16).

Paul makes this abundantly clear in Romans, as well as in Galatians and Philippians and his other letters. In Ephesians, he famously writes,

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9).

Paul also says that we should do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10), but those good works are not the basis for our salvation. They are not the root of our salvation, but the fruit that naturally comes out of life changed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

If we have a right relationship with Jesus, one marked by trust, love, and obedience, we will know who he is. We might not know everything, but we do need to know some things. Importantly, we will know that he is God. In John 8:24, Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “I am he” is a reference to the God of the Old Testament. It is how God referred to himself when he first spoke to Moses (Exod. 3:14). It is how God refers to himself in the book of Isaiah (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4).

The Bible pictures salvation as being united to Jesus. The Bible also says that Jesus is our bride. If you are married to someone you will know it, and you will know important things about your spouse. So, if you’re married to Jesus, you’ll know that he’s the Son of God, the world’s only Savior, and the King of kings and Lord of lords. You’ll know that he died on the cross for your sins and that he rose from the grave.

The third truth I want us to think about is that we will stand before God on judgment day. We will have to give an account for what we have done. I don’t know the mechanics of how this will work out. I don’t know that we’ll be given a chance to speak to God and present a case for our justification. But let’s say we will. What will you say to God? Will you say, “God, I deserve to be with you for eternity because I’ve done all these good things. I’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show you all the good things that I’ve done.” Or will you humbly say something like this? “God, I know that you would be right to condemn me. I know that I have failed to love you and to obey you. Have mercy on me, the sinner. Please forgive me. My only hope is your Son, Jesus. I trust that his righteousness and his atonement are enough to save me from sin. My faith is set upon Christ. He is my only hope for salvation.” If that is the posture of your heart, you have faith in Jesus. The good news is that he can save us from any sin we’ve committed. We can be acceptable to God because of Jesus. But we must first acknowledge our sin and humbly seek forgiveness. We must repent, turning away from sin, and turn to our only hope, who is Christ.

Christians, we must not look down at other people as though we were better than them, or more deserving of God’s grace. We must not say, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Democrat,” or, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Republican.” We can’t even say, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.” We must not boast in ourselves, but we must boast in Christ. Paul wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; quoting Jer. 9:24). He then wrote, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).

Notes

  1. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oDt8wWQsiA&feature=youtu.be. The relevant portion of the interview begins at about 16:20.

 

[podlove-web-player post="2494"]

Kingdom Come

This sermon was preached on August 25, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below). 

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are really good at remembering things, and those who . . . wait a minute . . . I can’t remember who the other people are.

To be serious, when it comes to matters of faith, it does seem like there are two types of people in the world. There are people who want to know facts before they believe. They want to know what Scripture says. They want to think through good arguments for why they should believe. These want a faith that makes good intellectual sense. They want a religious faith that isn’t contradictory, one that makes sense of the basic facts of life. They don’t believe based on feelings, but on whether something is true.

Then, there are people who won’t believe it unless they see it or feel it themselves. We might say these people want evidence, but not evidence that can be read in a book. They want to see miracles personally or have certain positive feelings. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas, couldn’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, though that is what the other disciples told him. No, Thomas had to see the risen Jesus for himself in order to believe. When Thomas finally did see Jesus, he fell down at his feet and famously said, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:28–29).[1]

I’ve been thinking a bit about this recently, because some churches rely on producing feelings. Recently, I saw that another church baptized a large number of people, and they posted a testimony from someone who supposedly came to faith. Maybe this person really does believe. I don’t know. But the testimony was all about her feelings. She felt happy. She felt excited. She felt love. But nowhere in her words was there a mention of basic facts of the gospel message. There was no mention of sin, of who Jesus is, what he did to save her, and no mention of trusting Jesus and repentance. There was talk about being devoted to Jesus, but it was more about him helping her than her rather taking up her cross and following him.

I mention this because as we will see in today’s passage, Luke 17:20–37, Jesus makes a bold claim about the kingdom of God. He says it has come upon the Earth, but “in ways that can be observed.” Jesus’ own coming to Earth was rather quiet. Yes, it came through a miracle: the Son of God took on human form. But most of his life was lived quietly. He was a carpenter’s son. He didn’t draw attention to himself. When the time was right, he did have a public ministry. And he did perform some amazing miracles. But he didn’t produce what everyone was expecting. And Jesus never said that life in the kingdom of God, at least in this age, will always feel good. He never promised it would be easy. The word “fun” doesn’t appear in the Bible, and generally what we often think of as “happiness” or “self-fulfillment” doesn’t appear in the Bible either. That’s not to say that God doesn’t give us pleasures. He does, and I trust that he will do more of that in the future. It’s to say that we follow Jesus because of truth, not feelings. And we need to know what Jesus himself taught in order to follow him.

So, with all that being said, we’re going to start to read today’s passage. I’ll begin by reading Luke 17:20–21:

20 Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

Jesus is once again being questioned by the Pharisees, one group of Jewish men who were influential religious leaders at this time.[2] They ask Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. The idea of the kingdom of God could mean many things, depending on the person. What they probably had in mind were prophecies in the Old Testament that a descendant of David would come and rule God’s people. This anointed king, the Messiah, would crush the enemies of God’s people, Israel, and establish a reign that would never end (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:2–7; 11:1–5). The Pharisees probably wanted to know when this king could come and defeat the Roman Empire, the occupying force in Palestine at that time. The Jewish people wanted the freedom, the power, and the land that was theirs during the time of King David and his son, Solomon.

Jesus knew they were expecting this display of power when the Messiah comes. But Jesus, who is the Messiah, the King of kings, says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed.” He means that it wouldn’t come in the way they expected it, with huge demonstrations of national strength, with military victories. Then he says, more or less, “Don’t listen to people when they say that it’s here or there. The truth is that the kingdom of God is right in your midst.”

Now, Jesus does not mean something that I’ve heard from others. There are some translations, like the earlier version of the NIV, that says, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Some people take that to mean that God is already in you, or that you have some divine spark within you. I actually heard this from a man who claimed to be a Christian, yet who also believed in a lot of New Age or eastern religious concepts like reincarnation or the idea that we’re all divine in some way. This man appealed to this verse, in that translation—“the kingdom of God is within you”—to prove that Jesus taught this.

In any of you watched the first two debates featuring the approximately 300 Democrats currently running for president, you might know who Marianne Williamson is. She has long been a kind of New Age spiritual teacher. In an interview, she said this about Jesus:

Jesus was a human being who while on earth completely self-actualized and fulfilled in all ways the potential glory that lies within us all. He became one with the Essence and Christ Spirit that is in all of us. In that sense, he is our evolutionary elder brother. He demonstrated our destiny. He displayed for all to see the destination of this journey that we are on. The only thing lacking in any situation is our own awareness of love, and Jesus realized and taught that.

Jesus is a personal symbol of the Holy Spirit. Having been totally healed by the Holy Spirit, Jesus became one with him. Every thought, action, and deed of Jesus was guided by the Holy Spirit instead of ego. He’s not the only face the Holy Spirit takes on—he is a face. To think about Jesus is to think about and bring forth the perfect love inside us. Jesus actualized the Christ mind, and was then given the power to help the rest of us reach that place within ourselves.

He was sent down by God—as we all are. We are all extensions of the mind of God. We all contain nuggets of glory.[3]

If you have read the Gospels, you know that this is not what Jesus taught. If you’ve read any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, you can’t believe this. Jesus would never say to the Pharisees, who thought they knew God but really didn’t, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Jesus didn’t say the kingdom of God is in us. He said that we must be born again to enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:3).

Jesus was that the kingdom of God is right in front of you. It’s here. The king is in your midst. If they only had the eyes of faith to see the truth, they would know that Jesus is the Messiah. He didn’t come the first time to overthrow the Roman Empire, to take political office, to make a lot money. He came to teach people about God, to show that he is the Son of God, the true King, and to save people from their sins, which is their greatest problem.

Our greatest problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money, or enough political power. Our greatest problem isn’t that we feel bad. We feel bad because we are bad. We are all affected by the power of sin, the power of rebellion against God that entered into the world when the first humans turned away from God. Because of this power of sin, we commit sins. We don’t love God as we ought. We don’t obey him. We don’t love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus came to fix that problem, not to make us feel better.

In the rest of the chapter, Jesus turns to his disciples and warns them not to think like the Pharisees. The kingdom of God will come in its fullest in the future, but they won’t see it. Before that time, Jesus will have to suffer. And I think he implies that they will suffer, too. But he encourages them, and us, to follow him. There will be a day when Jesus comes a second time. That time, he won’t come quietly and humbly. He will come in glory and power. He will reign on Earth, but not before he judges everyone who has ever lived. Jesus wants us to be on the right side of that judgment.

Let’s now read the rest of the passage. Here is Luke 17:22–37:

22 And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 23 And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. 24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— 30 so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”

I want to explain what Jesus says here by highlighting four truths. The first truth of his message to his disciples is that they will not see the day when Jesus returns in glory. At least, they won’t see it before they die. These disciples had the privilege of witnessing Jesus teach and perform miracles for two or three years. There will be a time when Jesus will leave them, and he will not return in their lives on Earth. There will be times in their lives when they will long for the days of the Son of Man—that’s a reference to Jesus. They will wish Jesus is with them. They will wish it was already the time when the whole world would know who Jesus really is, when he comes to judge the living and the dead and to establish fully his kingdom. (Theologians say the kingdom is already here, but not fully consummated.) The Old Testament often spoke of “the days are coming” in terms of God’s judgment upon his enemies (Isa. 39:6; Jer. 7:32; 16:14; Amos 4:2). The disciples will long to see that. If you’re a Christian, you surely have days when you want to see that. So many people don’t believe in the true Jesus. They don’t live as if he is their King. We want to see everyone recognize who Jesus is. We want people to turn away from living for themselves, to turn away from their sin, and to turn to Jesus, seeking forgiveness and restoration.

The second promise of Jesus’ message that I want us to see is this: Jesus says that before that time of judgment, before he overthrows all the powers that are hostile to God, he must suffer. Jesus has already predicted his death several times (Luke 9:22, 44; 12:50; 13:22–33). He alludes to it again here. He says he will be rejected by “this generation” and that he will suffer. The Jewish people expected a Messianic king who would conquer, not one who would suffer. They didn’t connect promises of David’s offspring who would reign forever to prophecies about a suffering servant who would die for the sins of his people (Isa. 52:13–53:12).

I think Jesus highlights his upcoming death to indicate that the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness can’t happen without him first dying on the cross. He will die not because he did anything wrong. He is the only person who never sinned. No, he will die to pay the death penalty that all sinners deserve. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Our sin corrupts, distorts, and ruins God’s creation. God, who is a righteous judge, can’t have that. All crime must be punished. But God graciously sent his Son to die in our place. And Jesus volunteered to do that. It was his will just as much as it was the Father’s. Jesus wants his disciples to know that what he is about to do is a key part of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth.

I also think that Jesus is teaching us that before glory comes suffering. That’s certainly true of his ministry. Before he died on the cross, Jesus lived a humble life. His miracles got the attention of many, but he had no money, no political office. At the end of his life he was betrayed, abandoned, rejected, tortured, and killed. He died naked, in shame, nailed to a cross and hung there until he could no longer breathe. In the world’s eyes, that’s not glory. But Jesus rose from the grave, showing that he paid the penalty for sin and that he has power over sin and death. He is now exalted in heaven, and he will return in glory.

Jesus probably wanted his disciples to know that the pattern of suffering now and being raised to glory later is the pattern that Christians will experience. Jesus never promised us we would feel a lot of positive feelings. He did promise great things for those who turn to him in faith: forgiveness of sins, the presence of the Holy Spirit, a new family of Christians, a place in God’s kingdom, peace with God. But those benefits are not something we always feel. We must trust that they are true. And Jesus also promised his followers that they would experience persecution and hate. They would suffer. The apostle Paul said the same thing. In Romans 8:16–17, he writes,

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Christians suffer because there are times when the world hates them. So, Christians suffer because of what others do. Christians also suffer because they still live in a world that is stained by sin. All that bad things we experience, such as fighting, diseases, and death, are a result of sin in the world. Christians also suffer because they must wrestle with their own sin. They must put their old patterns of sin to death, and this doesn’t come quickly or easily. It can be painful. Yet Jesus promises, as we see in verse 33, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

The third truth that Jesus teaches in this passage is that his second coming will be obvious, public, universal, and unmistakable. He knows there will be people who claim that Jesus has secretly returned. People will say, “Look here” or “Look there.” Jesus tells us not to bother with people who make those false claims. When Jesus returns, everyone will know. There will be flashes of lightning, which are often associated with an appearance of God (Exod. 19:16; Ps. 77:18; Rev. 4:5; 8:5; 11:19; 16:18). Somehow, everyone on Earth will know that Jesus has returned. It will be as clear as lightning in the sky.

Some people have taught that there is a secret return of Jesus, a secret “rapture.” I have tried in the past to teach against this is subtle ways, but I won’t do that this morning. Let me be clear. The Bible does not teach that Jesus will come quietly or secretly. Every passage dealing with his return talks about either visual signs or a great noise. Now, the Bible has one passage that teaches a rapture. First Thessalonians 4:17 says that when Jesus returns, Christians will be “caught up” with Christ in the air. But that passage says nothing about what happens next. The most popular end-times theology taught today isn’t what the church has believed for almost two thousand years. It was developed around 1830 by a man named John Nelson Darby, who believed that the church was a failure. Of course, he established his own church, which he believed was the only true church. But he also devised a very fanciful end times theology that teaches things that the Bible really doesn’t teach. We see in this passage that Jesus combines his public glorious return with salvation and judgment and the consummation of his kingdom on Earth. Most passages in the New Testament that talk about his return describe those events as happening at the same time.

And that leads me to something else that is very clear in this passage. The fourth truth is that when Jesus returns, there will be a division among all people. Some will be spared God’s condemnation. They will be saved. Others will be condemned. Jesus gives us two examples from the book of Genesis. In the days of Noah, people were wicked. God sent a flood upon the Earth to judge everyone. The only people who were spared were Noah and his family. Noah was instructed to build a large ship, an ark, to save his family and various species of animals. Now, Noah was prepared for the flood. But everyone outside his family wasn’t. They went on living as if their lives would never end. But when the flooding started, it was too late. Noah and his family were safe on the ark, and everyone else would perish. (See Genesis 6–9 for the story about Noah and the flood.)

The other example is of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and what happened to the city of Sodom. We are told that Lot and daughters were spared a judgment that came upon Sodom for their sexual immorality and their pride (Gen. 19:1–29; Ezek. 16:49; Jude 7). Lot, like Noah, responded to God’s word about a coming judgement. Noah found safety in the ark, while Lot was told to flee the city. Everyone else went on living in the city as if nothing was going to happen. Even Lot’s sons-in-law didn’t believe that judgment would come. But then judgment came, and it was too late for them to repent.

Those two events in Genesis foreshadow a final judgment, when Jesus returns. All who have failed to trust in Jesus will be condemned. Those who don’t believe that he is the Son of God, those who don’t repent, those who don’t live as if he is King, those who don’t trust that he has done everything to make us right with God—those people will face something worse than death. They will experience eternity apart from God and from any scrap of goodness. And that is just, because they didn’t want God in this life.

Jesus says the division of all people will occur within families. He says there will be two people in a bed. One will be taken, the other left behind. In Matthew’s Gospel, it seems that the one taken is taken in judgment, just as the people in Noah’s day were swept away by the flood (see Matt. 24:37–41). Here, it seems that the one taken is brought to safety, and the one left behind is judged. I don’t think the details matter. What matters is that the division will cut right through families. Families in those days all lived in close quarters. The people in bed could be a husband and wife, or a father and his son. Families often worked together. The who women grinding grain at the mill could be a mother and her daughter, or two sisters. Just because one person in a family is a Christian doesn’t mean the others are. Each person must personally trust Jesus to be spared condemnation.

I also think those examples—people sleeping in bed, people at work—show us that we don’t know when Jesus will return. It could be at night or it could be in the day. It could be while we’re sleeping or it could be while we’re working. We don’t know when Jesus will return. The way to be ready is to put your faith in him now, to admit your sins, confess them to God, repent of your sin, and actively follow Jesus. That is the only way to be prepared.

How do we apply the great truths of this passage to our lives? One way is to know that God’s kingdom is already here. Yes, many people don’t live as if God is King. They don’t live as if Jesus is their King. But he is. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s people are living under his rule and experiencing his blessings. God’s kingdom right now doesn’t always look very impressive. It looks a lot like what you see right now: some very ordinary people gathering to hear God’s word, to sing together, to pray together, to encourage one another and correct each other if necessary. God’s kingdom may look like a married couple faithfully loving each other. It may look like a single person living a quiet life of devotion to his or her true spouse, Jesus. It may be parents teaching their children, or someone at work working hard as if they are working directly for Jesus. It may look like someone quietly and humbly loving other people by doing something kind. It may look like someone having the courage to speak the truth to people who don’t want to hear it but who really need to hear it.

The kingdom of God is here now. It’s not announced with signs and wonders. It doesn’t look impressive. Entering into it may not always feel dramatic. But Jesus and his followers urged people to enter the kingdom. And that is still true today. I urge anyone here who is not truly a Christian to turn to Jesus, to bow before him, to confess all sins, to seek the forgiveness that only he provides. You may not feel like doing this. If you do it, I can’t guarantee what you’ll feel. The only reason to be a Christian is that this message is true. And it takes the eyes of faith to see that. Jesus promises us a return that we haven’t seen. He warns of a coming judgment that many people think will never happen. None of us have seen Jesus in the flesh. But we have his words. We have testimony about him that has been given to us by people who saw him, who knew him. And we believe this testimony comes ultimately from God himself. I encourage anyone who may have doubts about Jesus to learn more about him. Understand what the Bible teaches. If you have doubts, I would love to talk personally with you. I can give you many reasons why this message is true, why it makes sense of all of life. But know that the only reason to believe is because it’s true and it’s right to live for Jesus.

If you went to your doctor and were told you have cancer, and if you believed your doctor, and if you didn’t want to die an early death, you would begin treatment. If you’re here and you believe this message that you have the wound of sin, a wound that we cannot cure, if you believe that Jesus can alone can cure that wound, and if you believe that unless that wound is cured, you will be condemned, you will turn to Jesus now. Do so before it’s too late.

For those of us who have turned to Jesus, I want to point out what Jesus has said here. Don’t believe people who say they know when Jesus is returning. Don’t listen to the end-times madness that is out there. Follow Jesus now and you don’t have to worry about when he comes. What does following Jesus look like? Jesus tells us. He says, “Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” In the story of Lot, when he and his family left Sodom, they were told not to look back. But his wife looked back at the city. She probably wanted to go back. Perhaps she didn’t want to leave her old way of life. Whatever she was thinking, she didn’t trust God’s message. So, she was turned into a pillar of salt. She was made into a statue. She is a warning that when we follow Jesus, we cannot turn back. We must make a commitment to him.

Our old lives can seem very alluring. When we were living for ourselves, we might have had a lot of fun, a lot of pleasure. It’s tempting to go back and do the things that we used to do. It’s tempting to do what other people in the world are doing now. But we can’t. There are certain actions and attitudes that simply are not compatible with Christianity. We are told to flee these things. We must lose our old lives in order to be saved. Those who refuse to do so, those who seek to preserve their old lives, will lose their lives in the end.

This doesn’t mean that there is no joy in following Jesus. There are joys in following him. God has given us many good things that we can experience by living according to his design. Christians can have fun. They can be happy. But we must learn to find our joy in Christ, to make him our greatest treasure. When we do that, we are willing to follow him, no matter what. When we see that Jesus is a greater treasure than anything in the world, we can endure suffering for his sake. When we see that eternity hangs in the balance, that this life is brief, but that where we spend eternity will last forever, we will do what Jesus asks us to do. Whatever suffering we experience now will be brief, but eternity with Jesus will be more pleasurable than anything we can imagine. As David once wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps. 30:5). Glory will come to all who enter into God’s kingdom, but not after some measure of suffering.

Jesus’ kingdom is here, right now. Let us live like he is our King. When the King returns in glory, it will be too late to turn to him in faith.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. The Pharisees often question Jesus or complain about him, usually to trap in saying something they think will get him in trouble. See Luke 5:21, 30; 6:2, 7; 7:39; 11:38, 45; 13:31; 14:15; 15:2; 16:14; 18:18.
  3. William J. Elliott, A Place at the Table: A Journey to Rediscover the Real Jesus with the Guidance of Various Teachers, from Billy Graham to Deepak Chopra (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 238.

 

[podlove-web-player post="2480"]

Giving Him Thanks

This sermon was preached on August 18, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

What is most lacking in this country of ours? What does our society need? If you ask ten different people, you will probably get ten different answers. Depending on who you ask, the answers might be love, tolerance, civility, diversity, equality, education, science, faith, peace, or security. I think some of those are good answers. Some of those answers are better than others. But this country would be better off immediately if we had something else: gratitude. We would be better off if more people were truly thankful.

Think about this: how often do we get messages about being thankful? It seems like all the messages that come at us are designed to make us feel anything but grateful. Think about the news stories we hear. They are often about bad things happening. The news makes us feel fearful or outraged. And this is by design. News is a business, and tragic stories sell. We seem to have a whole industry built on grievances, on who is more oppressed. This is true on both sides of the political aisle.

Think about the commercials that we see: they are designed to make us feel that something is lacking in our lives, and if we only had that product, things would be better. A lot of commercials show a common problem that could be solved with a great product. Think about how many detergent commercials you’ve seen where the kids are getting their clothes dirty. The mother is frustrated that the kids aren’t more careful and that she can’t get those grass stains out. I’m sure the father is frustrated that the family has to keep buying clothes. The kids probably don’t care, but they’re not going to buy the detergent, so who cares about them? But now, if you get this detergent, all those frustrations are gone. Grass stains wash out easily. The kids can play outside without care. Moms and dads can relax. Just about every infomercial and “As-Seen-on-TV” product has that formula: it identifies a problem and offers a solution.

A lot of commercials are far more subtle. They don’t identify a problem, but they get you to covet something you don’t have. They show a beautiful car navigating winding roads along the coast as well as crowded streets through concrete canyons. You may have a car that works perfectly well, but in watching those commercials, you’re led to believe that if you only had a new car, your life would be more adventurous and exciting. You may have a phone that works perfectly well, but you see commercials that show the latest technology, and you imagine that your life would somehow be better if your phone’s camera had more megapixels or more storage, or whatever. You have clothes that don’t have holes in them, that look fine, but you see ads on the glossy pages of a magazine or a catalog that show people wearing stylish clothing, and you’re led to think, in subtle ways, “My life would be better if I looked like that.”

Notice that cable news doesn’t make you feel more thankful. Commercials don’t make you feel content. Talk radio doesn’t make you feel more peaceful. Social media doesn’t make you feel grateful for what you have; instead, it tends to make us feel envious or outraged. Imagine what the world would be like if we could turn these messages off and find reasons to be grateful.

Today, we’re going to look at the importance of being thankful. We’re going to consider a passage in the Gospel of Luke that shows how true faith in Jesus results in thanks. We’ll also consider how one of the biggest problems of humanity is not being thankful. And we’ll consider ways that we can thank God more for all the good things he’s given to us.

Today, we’re looking at Luke 17:11–19. I’m going to read the whole passage, explain what’s going on in it, and then think about those issues.

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”[1]

Luke has already made it clear that Jesus is bound to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He doesn’t mean that Jesus was going on a straight line from Galilee to Jerusalem, in Judea. He means that the time was approaching for Jesus to go to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. But he does some very important things before he gets there, and Luke saw fit to include this passage.

As Jesus was walking between two regions, Samaria and Galilee, he entered a village. There were ten people there who had a terrible skin condition. This is referred to as leprosy in the Bible, though it’s not exactly the equivalent of what is known as leprosy today. Leprosy could refer to any type of ongoing skin condition. What’s important is that in the eyes of Jewish people, skin conditions made people “unclean.”

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

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

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

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

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

45 “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (See also Num. 5:1–4.)

So, these lepers were outcasts, people who couldn’t live like everyone else. They couldn’t go to the temple to worship. They couldn’t be touched. That’s why they stood at a distance.

Yet these people cry out to Jesus. They call him “Master,” recognizing that he has authority to heal them. They ask for mercy, to be delivered from something terrible even though they are not worthy.

What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t heal them there. He doesn’t touch them. He doesn’t pray. What he does is tell them to go to the priests. This is something the law of the Old Testament required. (See Leviticus 14.) The priests were the ones who would make sure a person had been healed of a skin disease, and the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of that person. After that, the person was ceremonially clean and able to rejoin society. These people who had leprosy apparently left Jesus to go to their priests, and as they did so, they found that they were cleansed. Not only were they healed physically, but they were made clean. The power of sin had been removed. This was a miracle that Jesus performed at a distance. It shows his power: he only has to think the thought to heal people of conditions brought on by sin.

This happened to all ten of these people. Yet only one of them, when he sees that he was healed, goes back to Jesus in awe and wonder and thanksgiving. One man did this. He praised God loudly. He fell down at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan.

In the eyes of Jewish people, Samaritans were unclean. They were the distant relatives of the Jews, people who could trace their lineage back to the ancient Israelites. But those Israelites had married Gentiles and had children with them. Therefore, Jews thought of Samaritans as not pure, as half-breeds. They also didn’t worship in Jerusalem. They had their own place of worship in Samaria, and they didn’t accept all of the Old Testament as the word of God. Jews looked down upon Samaritans and tried to avoid them.

We’re probably safe to assume that the other nine people who were cleansed were Jews and, possibly, Samaritans. It is ironic that the Samaritan is the one who recognizes that what Jesus has done is from God. The Jewish people who were healed didn’t stop to praise God. Yes, they probably went to the priests and did as Jesus told them to do. But they didn’t seem to have the same faith that this one Samaritan man had.

That’s why Jesus asks some rhetorical questions. He asks, “Were not ten cleansed?” Yes, of course. “Where are the other nine?” They’re long gone. “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Apparently not. In Jesus’ view, the only one who truly praised God was this one man, the Samaritan. And Jesus commends this man. He tells him that his faith has made him well.

Now, the others who were healed did cry out to Jesus. But apparently they lacked faith. This shows that people will sometimes call upon God when they’re in trouble. People who are sick sometimes ask for prayer, and they often won’t mind if you pray for them. But God isn’t just some cosmic butler who stands waiting at our beck and call when we feel like we need him. He’s not a genie that grants us our wishes. God is King. He is Lord. He is Master. He made us to serve him and worship him and obey him. Yes, he graciously answers prayer. But he should also be praised and thanked. People who truly have faith in God are people who are thankful. The mark of God’s children should be praise and thanksgiving.

We see examples of thanks throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, people who lacked faith grumbled, even after God gave them good things. That’s often the story of the Israelites—many of them were a bunch of stiff-necked ingrates.

But certainly not all. David, the great King of Israel, though certainly not a perfect man, thanked God. When he conquered the city of Jerusalem and made it the center of Israelite’s worship, the ark of the covenant was brought into the city and into the tabernacle. And then David praised God. This is from 1 Chronicles 16:

Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works!
10  Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!
11  Seek the Lord and his strength;
seek his presence continually!
12  Remember the wondrous works that he has done,
his miracles and the judgments he uttered,
13  O offspring of Israel his servant,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones! (1 Chron. 16:8–13)

35 Say also:
“Save us, O God of our salvation,
and gather and deliver us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.
36  Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!”

Then all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the Lord. (1 Chron. 16:35–36)

Before David died and left the kingdom to his son, Solomon, he arranged for materials to be gathered to build the temple in Jerusalem. When people freely gave massive amounts of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, as well as precious stones, he praised God. He said:

Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. 11 Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. 12 Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. 13 And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:10–13)

This is how we should respond to anything that happens in our lives. When we experience any measure of goodness, we should thank God. We can thank God for answered prayers, but also a meal. We can thank God for a new job or a raise or when someone we loved is healed. But we can and should also thank God for a sunrise, for another day to be alive, for clothing and shelter and the bare necessities of life. We should be thankful for all things.

Yet our problem is that we often aren’t thankful. In the book of Romans, a letter written by the apostle Paul, he says that the great problem of humanity is our failure to worship God as we ought. And this is true of everyone, whether they are familiar with the Bible or not. He says that everyone stands under God’s wrath because though we are aware of God’s existence, we ignore him. We go our own way. We worship someone or something other than God. There’s one line in Paul’s description of the plight of humanity that stands out. He says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21). If one important mark of God’s children is that they’re thankful, one of the most important marks of sinners is that they’re not thankful.

Yet Paul goes on to say that though all have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and have deserved death, God has given an amazing gift to all who have the faith to receive it. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus, the Son of God, was sent to the world to save people from sin (Matt. 1:21). He is the only one who never sinned, the perfectly righteous man (who also happens to be God). Though he’s the only who has not earned God’s punishment for sin, being cast out of the camp forever, so to speak, he died a sinner’s death, bearing God’s wrath on the cross. All who trust Jesus have had their sins paid for in full, and they are credited with his perfect standing. They are given the priceless gift of eternal life.

Salvation from sin and eternal death is a gift. It is something we have not deserved or earned. We’re not entitled to it. Paul knew this. That’s why he thanks God in the book of Romans for salvation. After describing how we don’t have the power within us to live godly lives, he writes this, in Romans 7:24–25:

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul talks at length about the reality that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the grave. His resurrection demonstrated that his sacrifice for sin was acceptable, that he is the Son of God, and that he has power of sin and death. After boldly stating that death has no victory over Christians, Paul writes, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57).

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he often writes about his own personal suffering. Paul forfeited a comfortable place within Jewish society to be Jesus’ messenger, someone who went to others to tell them about what God has done in and through Jesus. Paul often endured rejection, beatings, difficult travels, and imprisonment in order to tell others about Jesus. Yet even in the midst of suffering, Paul was thankful. He wrote this to those Christians in Corinth: “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15). Paul knew that as more people came to Jesus, it would lead to more thankful people, and this would glorify, or praise, God. Why does God graciously save people from sin? So they would be thankful. But not only that. So that they would praise him. Elsewhere, Paul says that God saves us “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6) and “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12, 14).

God wants us to thank him. He wants our thanks to be a large part of our worship of him. He delivers us from bad things not so that we would have easier lives, but so that we would thank him and praise him. Yet so much of our society pushes us in the other direction. We’re not taught to be thankful. We’re not led to think about all the good things we have. Paul says, in another letter, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8). Commercials, news, and social media don’t lead us to think about the things we’re thankful for.

Remember, our problem is our lack of gratitude to God. Just the other day, I was listening to a new album by a man named Drew Holcomb. I’m pretty sure he’s a Christian, because his wife, Ellie Holcomb, is a singer who has made explicitly Christian albums. In one of his new songs, he sings:

You want what you can’t have.
Since the Garden of Eden it’s been like that.
You can’t tear down the tree, or pull all the weeds,
Spend your life looking for the greener grass.[2]

Of course, people do spend their whole lives looking for greener grass. But they end up feeling like they’re missing out, like the good things are “over there” somewhere. The pursuit of something better is endless. It causes us not to dwell on all the good things we already have, but to focus on that which we don’t have. It doesn’t lead us to be thankful, but to feel empty. In the very next song on that same album, Drew Holcomb sings,

Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything.
Maybe we’re lost in what we want, not what we need.
Everything is never enough, takes you away from what you love.
Maybe we’re not supposed to try everything.[3]

So, how should we respond to this message? With faith. Jesus can cleanse us of our uncleanness, which comes through sin. Sin taints everything in our lives. We can’t defeat it or root it out of ourselves. Only Jesus can remove our sin. But he does this only for those who turn to him in faith. If you’re not a Christian, cry out to God for mercy. Acknowledge that you have not been thankful. You haven’t wanted God and his glory. You’ve wanted what you can’t have. You have turned away from God and made other things more important in your life. You’ve not lived life on God’s terms. Tell God that you don’t have an excuse, that you’re sorry for your sin, and that you realize that the only way to be acceptable in his eyes is to turn to his Son, Jesus.

If you are a Christian, be thankful. That’s something that Paul tells Christians repeatedly. In the book of Colossians, he tells us to walk in the ways of Jesus, and to be “abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6–7). He tells us to live as people who love, people who forgive others because we have been forgiven, people who let “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts.” And then he adds, quite simply, “And be thankful” (Col. 3:15). Then, he says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). In 1 Thessalonians, he says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–17). God wants us to be thankful.

Here are some things we can thank God for:

Thank God for simply existing. Thank God for the gift of life.

Thank God for your parents and your upbringing. Thank God for the people who gave you life and who helped shape your life. God saw fit to have you be born and raised in a certain time and place. Stop and think about all the good things that came from that, and thank God.

Thank God for whatever natural abilities and gifts you have. If you have a body that’s healthy and strong, thank him for that. If you have a good mind, thank him for that. If you have a mind for music, or the ability to work hard, or the ability to be cheerful even in difficult circumstances, thank God for that.

If you’ve had education, thank God for that. If you can read and write, thank him for that.

If you have clean water, thank God. Not everyone in the world has that. If you have enough food to eat, thank God. Not everyone in the world has access to healthy food, and enough of it.

Thank God for a place to live, clothes to wear, for transportation.

Thank God for medical care.

Thank God even for difficult things in your life. If you look back over your life and consider times that were painful, what we would often call trials, you can see that in those times, God was doing something. He was teaching you something. Perhaps he was orchestrating something in your life and in the lives of others that wouldn’t have happened without that pain. We should be thankful even for trials, even for sufferings. God uses those things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). Perhaps one of the marks of a Christian is thanking God even when things don’t seem to go our way.

Above all, thank God for salvation, for adopting you into his family. Thank him for the gift of eternal life. Thank him now, because that’s what Christians will be doing throughout eternity. The book of Revelation gives us various images of what people will do in heaven and in the new creation, the perfect world that God will create when heaven and Earth become one. We find this image in Revelation 7:9–12:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Notes

  1. All biblical quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, “You Want What You Can’t Have,” from the 2019 album, Dragons (Magnolia Music).
  3. Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, “Maybe,” from the 2019 album, Dragons (Magnolia Music).

 

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Giving Him Thanks (Luke 17:11-19)

In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus commends a man who gave thanks for healing him. Our problem is that we’re not thankful to God. What Jesus has done for us is a great reason to thank God. Brian Watson preached this message on August 18, 2019.

A Great Chasm

This sermon was preached on August 4, 2019 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

One of the great questions that people have is, “What happens after I die?” At least, that should be a question that we ask ourselves. Yet many people avoid talk of death and the afterlife, and that’s unfortunate. There was a comedian who was interviewed by Time magazine a few years ago. He was asked why he spoke so often about death in his stand-up acts. He said it’s because we’re all going to die. He made this analogy: it’s like we’re all getting on a bus that’s headed to Pittsburgh. The bus says “Pittsburgh” on the front, but when we get on the bus, no one is talking about Pittsburgh. Then, when someone starts to talk about that city and what they’re going to do there, people get uncomfortable and they ask, “Why are you talking about Pittsburgh.” And you say, “Because that’s where the bus is going. It says it right on the tickets!”[1]

This morning we’re going to talk about Pittsburgh, metaphorically speaking. Actually, we’re going to talk about what is beyond death. We’re going to hear from Jesus about two eternal destinations, what we would call heaven and hell. We’ll do this by considering a story that Jesus told, found in Luke 16. The story is something like a parable. The actual events are somewhat fictitious, like the events in his other parables. But this story teaches some very true things, things that Jesus wanted his original hearers to know, and things that God saw fit to record in the Bible.

If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. This is one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. At this point in Jesus’ life, he is teaching about the proper use of wealth. God has given us everything to be used wisely, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of others and, ultimately, for the sake of God’s kingdom. In this story that we’re looking at today, Luke 16:19–31, we see how a rich man failed to do that.

So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 16:19–31. I’m going to read the whole passage, and then I’m going to go back and make four points about the text, and then some comments about what this has to do with the work of Jesus.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”[2]

As I said earlier, I want to make four points about this passage. The first is that we see two very different men. First, there is a rich man, who isn’t named. We’re told that he wore purple clothing, which might not seem like an important feature, but purple dye was very rare. So were linen undergarments. In short, this man was clothed in very expensive clothing. He also “feasted sumptuously every day.” In the ancient world, this simply wasn’t possible. Most people ate a simple diet. But this man lived it up every day. The second man is Lazarus, a very poor man. This isn’t the Lazarus found in John 11, the one whom Jesus raised from the dead. This is, after all, a fictional character. But perhaps it’s not surprising that they bear the same name. Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God has helped,” or “God is my help.” God helps this Lazarus, but not before he has a miserable life. He was covered with sores, and his lot was so bad that wild dogs came to lick his sores. David Garland, in his commentary on Luke, says, “Dogs [from a Jewish perspective] are regarded as unclean animals and are often mentioned as eating the bodies of the dead (1 Kgs 14:11; 16:4; 21:19, 23, 24; 22:38).”[3] In a way, this man was left for dead. Lazarus was brought to the gate of the rich man, with the hopes that he could eat some scraps from this man’s table. We’re led to believe that he never got those scraps.

Now, we’re not told a lot about these men other than these bare facts. But from what we see here, the rich man knew who Lazarus was. He even calls him by name. So, he was aware of this man’s plight, and it seems that he repeatedly saw Lazarus lying in terrible condition outside his gate, but he did nothing to help the man. We don’t know anything about Lazarus other than his poverty and terrible physical condition. He never speaks in this story. But he must have been a man of faith, a man who trusted in the God of Israel. The story doesn’t tell us everything about why people go to either one of two destinations in the afterlife; we have to draw some inferences based on our knowledge of the rest of the Bible. For now, it’s important to pay attention to what this story says about these two men.

We see that both men die, but they go to two different places. The poor man dies and is taken to “Abraham’s side.” This is what we would call heaven. There are times in the Old Testament when we’re told that someone who died was “gathered to their fathers” (Gen. 15:15; 47:30; Deut. 31:16; Judg. 2:10; 1 Kgs. 1:21). Abraham was the forefather of all of Israel, a man of faith, someone who trusted in God’s great promise to bless the whole world through Abraham’s offspring. So, Abraham here is a representative of people of faith. But, more than that, in this story he’s also representative of God.

By contrast, when the rich man dies, he goes to Hades. (We’re told that the rich man was buried, but we’re not told that about Lazarus, which suggests that he didn’t have a proper burial because he was so poor.) In the Old Testament, Hades is called Sheol. It’s the realm of the dead. But while in the Old Testament, Sheol is a rather neutral place for all the dead, Hades is known as a place of torment. The rich man says that he is “in anguish in this flame.” We might call this hell.

It’s probably best to think of both places as provisional stations of the afterlife. At the end of the Bible, we’re told that the final destinations of all who live are either the new creation, a renewed and perfected physical world in which God’s people dwell with God forever, or the “lake of fire,” best thought of as a place of torment that exists beyond the world. But the Bible teaches that before the new creation and that final lake of fire, there is an intermediate state. For those who die trusting in Jesus, their spirits are in heaven. We’re not given as much information about those die not trusting in Jesus, but it seems there is some kind of provisional place of torment, Hades. And that’s what is being pictured here. Sometimes, this place is pictured as being one of fire. Other times, it’s a place of darkness and isolation and pain. It’s best to think of it as a removal from anything good, apart from any of God’s blessings.

What’s interesting is that the rich man, though he’s suffering in Hades, does not seem to show any sign of change. Yes, he does say, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me.” That’s because he’s suffering. But he never suggests that he was selfish and greedy, that he lived a life of comfort and ease while he ignored the plight of a suffering man who was right outside his gate. In fact, the rich man still treats Lazarus poorly. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to him to give him even a drop of water to cool his tongue. He’s treating Lazarus like a lackey, and not like a person made in the image of God. The rich man shows no sign of true remorse, no sign of repentance. He’s trying to control the situation in the afterlife.

As for Lazarus, we’re not told about his devotion to God and his faith in God. But we are given a picture of the rich man’s poor character. Everything seems to be about him. Yes, he later shows concern for his five brothers who are still alive. But earlier in Luke, Jesus said this:

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same (Luke 6:32–33).

The rich man should have realized that Lazarus was his brother. In the Old Testament, fellow Israelites were regarded as “brothers and sisters,” and there were commands to help the poor. Here is just one example, from Deuteronomy 15:

7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be (Deut. 15:7–8).

And beyond commandments of the law, we find other statements in the Old Testament that show that a failure to help those in need is ultimately an insult to God. Here is Proverbs 14:3:

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

When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus, Abraham responds tenderly, by calling him “child.” But he reminds the rich man that he had a life of ease and failed to help Lazarus, and now he is in anguish. Lazarus had a life of poverty and pain, not to mention the same of being licked by dogs, but now he is comforted. There is a great reversal. This is what Mary sang about in chapter 1:

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty (Luke 1:51–53).

It is also what Jesus said would happen: “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).

The rich man’s problem is that all this thoughts and cares are about himself. Theologians from Augustine to Martin Luther have noted that this is what sin does. The power of sin curves us in upon ourselves, so that we don’t look to God, who made us to live for his sake, and we don’t truly look to the welfare of others. We are selfish and proud, arrogant and greedy. At this point, I’m reminded of some lines from C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce. It’s an interesting book, one that imagines a busload of condemned people given a chance to visit heaven. They are offered another chance to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in the God of the Bible. But they don’t. The book is a fantasy, not a work of systematic theology, so it’s not the place to go for clear answers on heaven and hell. But like all of Lewis’s writings, it has some powerful insights. At one point, a character says, “a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself.”[4] The unredeemed soul shrinks, curved in on itself, shut up in itself. By contrast, the redeemed soul loves God and loves God’s creatures. At another point in The Great Divorce, it is said, “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.”[5]

So, these two different men end up in two very different places, one of torment and one we must assume is a place of rest. The third thing we see is that there is a chasm fixed between these two places, and this chasm cannot be crossed. Abraham says, “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” C. S. Lewis imagined the possibility of that chasm being bridged, but the fact is that the Bible is consistent in its teaching: once someone has died, it is too late to repent, too late to turn to God in faith. The book of Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). There is no passage in Scripture that suggests that the citizens of hell want to be in heaven, nor does any passage suggest there is a way to get out of hell into heaven. Upon death, one’s eternal destiny is sealed with an utter finality, and this should be sobering to us.

There are many people who claim to be Christians who think that there is some way for people who haven’t turned to God in this life to be saved in the next. Universalists believe that everyone will be saved. Others believe that, somehow, God will save more people, who will ultimately be won over by God’s great love. Yet there really is nothing in the Bible to suggest that this is possible. In fact, given what we see in the Bible, those who are condemned don’t want God. They don’t want to repent, just like the rich man. They don’t see the error of their ways. The book of Revelation says that even while God is pouring out his righteous wrath against sin, people still refuse to repent (Rev. 9:20–21; 16:9–11). The greatest passage in Lewis’s The Great Divorce captures this reality:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock, it is opened.

The Bible says that God gives people over to their sinful desires (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). Basically, God says, “You don’t want to live life on my terms? You don’t want to love me and live for me? You don’t really want me in your life? Fine, go your own way.”

Now, the very notion of hell and judgment is off-putting to some people. But I don’t think those people are considering things carefully. Imagine that the world that God created is like one big house. It’s God’s house, and he made the rules. And his rules are good, because God not only created the house, but he designed all of life. Now, there are some people in God’s house who decide to break the rules. This isn’t just an insult to God. It’s also dangerous. It’s harmful to the other people who live in the house. The rule-breakers are messing up God’s house and hurting other people. And the fact is, they don’t even want to be in God’s house. So, at the end of the day, God will say to them, “Get out. You don’t want to be in my house. You don’t want to obey my rules. You don’t truly love me or the people I have made. You must go.” God is right to do such a thing. He’s protective of his creation. And he’s protective of his own glory. We exchange the glory of God for the lesser glory of created things. We don’t worship the Creator. Instead, we make other people or things in this life more important to us. All of this is wrong, and God is perfectly right to kick us out of his house. Yes, there’s anguish and torment outside of God’s house. But the fact is that though people experience that torment, they won’t want to live by God’s rules. It seems like the torment of hell goes on forever because the people there keep sinning forever.

Now, to get back to the story, we see something very interesting at the end. As I said, the rich man shows some concern for his five living brothers. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to warn them to change their ways, “lest they also come into this place of torment.” At least the rich man has some awareness that how he lived led to his current state. But notice that he’s still treating Lazarus like an errand-boy at best. Nevertheless, Abraham, who is representing God in this story, tells the rich man something interesting. He says of the man’s brothers: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” He means that these brothers have the Old Testament, which should be sufficient to warn them against living like their dead brother.

The rich man protests. He says, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” Abraham knows better. He says, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Think about that for a moment. Imagine that someone you know to have died appears to you, telling you, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll end up like me, condemned and in anguish.” If you’ve seen any of the many iterations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, you know that this is basically what Jacob Marley’s ghost tells Ebenezer Scrooge. Imagine how powerful that would be. Of course, this isn’t going to happen. God could make it happen if he wanted; he is the God who made the whole universe out of nothing. He can cause the dead to come back to life. But God knows that sinful hearts are so hard that not even a messenger from the grave would turn people away from sin and back to him.

But what’s stunning is that Jesus says God’s word is sufficient. Abraham tells the rich man that if his brothers will not pay attention to the Old Testament, they wouldn’t listen to a resurrected Lazarus. The Old Testament has plenty of warnings about misusing wealth and treating the poor poorly. The Old Testament has many calls to repent, to turn back to God and seek him with your whole heart. If people won’t listen to that, they won’t pay attention to a miraculous messenger, whether that’s a dead person risen back to life, an angel, or a vision of Jesus himself.

This should tell us a lot about the importance of God’s word. The Bible is enough to tell us everything we need to know about God to be reconciled to him and to live a life that is pleasing to him. Yet many people don’t realize this. At this church, we try to conform our practices to that idea. That’s why we don’t have gimmicks here. Many churches rely on entertainment. They try to make a big splash with events that have nothing to do with Jesus. But here, we make much of the Bible, because we try to make much of God. We spend time reading the Bible and talking about it because we want to hear from God. I preach messages that explain the Bible because I realize that the Bible is God’s word to us. It’s a message from him. Why spend time on cute stories, or funny anecdotes, when they don’t have the power to save us from condemnation? They don’t have the power to transform us. Yet when God’s word is applied by the Holy Spirit to hard hearts, God can change a person. He can warn a person to repent. He can show a person the errors of his or her ways. He can comfort a person with the promise that all who come to Jesus can rest from striving to be their own gods and saviors. God makes wonderful promises in his word that all who come to Jesus in faith can be forgiven of sins, can be adopted into God’s family, and can come back into God’s house. In Jesus, we can come back home, to a place of comfort and rest. We wouldn’t know that apart from the Bible.

Before I close, I want to show how this passage connects to Jesus. In this story, we see the reason why the rich man went to Hades. He didn’t love his fellow man, a man whom he knew by name, who was laid outside his gate in the worst of conditions. The reason he was selfish and didn’t care for Lazarus is because he didn’t truly love God. We may not all be rich, but all of us have been selfish, fixed upon ourselves. We have all failed to love God and other people as we should. This passage doesn’t teach that every rich person is bound for hell. What matters is not how much money we have, yet how we use our money is a reflection of where we stand with God.

In a similar way, it would be wrong to conclude that every poor person goes to heaven. We don’t have any reason to believe that Lazarus went to heaven simply because he suffered in this life. What I mean is, if we read this passage in light of the whole Bible, we shouldn’t come to that conclusion. The Bible makes it clear that all have sinned (Rom. 3:23), and that includes both rich and poor. I think that we’re supposed to conclude that Lazarus was like Abraham, the man of faith. If you read about Abraham in the Old Testament, you realize that he was a pagan for much of his life. He probably worshiped false gods, just like his forefathers did. But the true God called him, and Abraham believed in God’s great promises. Abraham wasn’t perfectly obedient. He could be afraid. And his trust in God’s promises wasn’t perfect. His fear was a reflection of some doubt. And yet, in Genesis, we’re told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham was not righteous, yet he believed God’s word. As a result, God gave Abraham the gift of righteousness, of a right standing before him.

This is the way that sinful people are reconciled to God. None of us are righteous (Rom. 3:10). All of us have rejected God and rebelled against him. Just think of how often you ignore God. Think of how often we haven’t sought him out. Think of how often we haven’t looked to God for direction in our lives. Many of us don’t wake up every day thinking, “God, how can I obey you today? How can I serve you? How can I bring you honor and praise today?” We often do what we know is the wrong thing to do, or we fail to do what we know is the right thing. God would be just to condemn us all. But the amazing thing is that God loves us so much that he gave us a way to be regarded as righteous in his sight. God didn’t say, “Clean yourselves up and you’ll become acceptable to me.” God knows we could never do that. And God knows that if we did do that, we would become even more proud—“Look what I did!” So, God sent his beloved Son into the world.

Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who every lived a perfect life. He was never selfish and greedy. He always loved God the Father perfectly. He loved people so much he cared for their physical needs and he told them the truth about their condition. He warns us today not to be like the rich man, but to turn to him in faith. If you trust Jesus, if you realize that he is the Son of God, that he is the King of kings, that he alone can make you right in God’s eyes, that he alone is the gate of heaven, then you are credited with his righteousness. You are regarded as being perfect in God’s sight. But God is a perfect judge. He must punish all wrongdoing. He must punish sin. God punishes the sins of his people through the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus was treated like a criminal, rejected, mocked, tortured, and crucified, not because he had done anything wrong, but because we have. On the cross, he descended into Hades. He endured the hell of God’s righteous wrath as darkness covered the earth. He did this so all who turn to him in faith have their sins forgiven. Jesus’ sacrificial death paid for all the sins committed by Christians. If you don’t know Jesus, you can turn to him today and be forgiven of all your sins, even the worst things you’ve ever done, not to mention the worst thoughts and desires you’ve ever secretly harbored.

None of us deserve heaven, yet God opened up a way to that place of rest, beauty, and comfort. That way is Jesus. If you haven’t put your life in his hands, do so now. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.

If you do know Jesus, consider what it would look like to show more concern for those who are in anguish in this life. We may not have a dying man lying outside our house, hoping for a few scraps of food. But we are aware of needs throughout the world, and there are ways that we can help the poor, by giving to agencies dedicated to helping them. There are many Christian organizations that help the poor.

But let us not forget that the greatest need everyone has is to be reconciled to God, to have their sins forgiven. We can feed, clothe, and house the poor in this life, but if they don’t know Jesus, then they will be poor, naked, and in a place of anguish for eternity. If we truly love God, we’ll truly care about where others are going to spend eternity. Heaven and hell are real, more real than this life, and we should see that every soul is bound for one place or the other. The chasm between those two places is one that cannot be crossed. Let us tell others to cross over to Jesus in this life while there is still time.

Notes

  1. James Poniewozik, “Louis CK Interview, Part 2: Money and Mortality,” Time, June 23, 2011, http://entertainment.time.com/2011/06/23/louis-ck-interview-part-2-money-and-mortality.
  2. All Bible quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 670.
  4. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (originally published in 1946; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 139.
  5. Ibid., 100.

 

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A Great Chasm (Luke 16:19-31)

What happens after death? Jesus teaches some important facts about the afterlife in a famous passage, Luke 16:19-31. This passage doesn’t tell us everything about heaven and hell, but it tells us enough to warn us about how we live our days. To understand this passage in light of the whole Bible, listen to this message given by Brian Watson on August 4, 2019.

Shrewdness (Luke 16:1-15)

Jesus says that Christians can learn something from the world: we can learn to be more shrewd with what God has given to us. We should use our money (and everything else) to honor God, to love others, and to point other people to Christ, so that they would enter his kingdom. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 16:1-15 on July 14, 2019.

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.

 

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He Was Lost, and Is Found (Luke 15)

There are two wrong ways to respond to God: to run away from him and break all the rules, or to try to earn favor from him by obeying all the rules (and for selfish reasons). But there is a right way to respond to God, and when we turn to him, he is like a loving father who welcomes us back home. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 15 on July 7, 2019.

Count the Cost

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Think about anyone who has done something great with his or her life. Think about a great athlete, a great artist, a great leader, a great inventor, a great businessman. What made that person great? There are many things. Natural talent, intelligence, education, opportunity, and sometimes what we would call luck. But usually there’s another key ingredient, something that separates that person from others who had similar backgrounds. And that something is a singular devotion to what they’re doing. To be great athletes, people have to center their lives around their sport. They have to sleep enough, eat a certain diet, train long hours. Their lives are devoted to what they do. Similar things can be said of great musicians, painters, and writers, and certainly of people who create technologies or products.

To be great in the kingdom of God, we need to center our lives on Jesus. To be a Christian—and not just a great Christian, but an average one—we need to have a singular devotion to Jesus. We need to put him above everything else.

Today, we’re continuing our study of Jesus’ life. We’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for a long time now, and today we see what Jesus requires of those who would follow him. He requires that those who follow him love him more than they love anything else, even their own lives. He urges those who are considering following him to count the cost, which is being willing to suffer and renounce everything else. And he says that those who lose their distinctive Christian character are useless and will be thrown out.

The words that Jesus utters are hard words. He didn’t sugar-coat things. Neither will I this morning. But this a message that we need to hear. It’s a clarion call to greater commitment to Jesus. But the good news is that he is worth following. The athlete’s career will not save him. The artist’s great works will not pay for her sins against God and against others. The inventor’s inventions will not bring him eternal life. But Jesus can gives all these things and more to those who are his disciples.

Today, we’re reading Luke 14:25–35. We’ll start by reading verses 25 and 26:

25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.[1]

Recently in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has had a lot of conflict with the religious leaders of Judaism at this time. He was eating with some of them at the beginning of this chapter (Luke 14:1–24). But now Jesus is traveling, and a great amount of people are following him. We have seen that Jesus has attracted crowds wherever he goes. There is simply no one like him. No one has ever taught as brilliantly has he has. No one has ever been able to perform all the miracles that he has. So, it makes sense that he would get a lot of attention. But he wants people who are coming to him to know that it’s not enough for them to be fans. Jesus doesn’t want fans, he wants followers. He doesn’t want people who spectate, he wants students. (That’s what the Greek word translated as “disciple” literally means.)

So, Jesus says to the crowd something that might shock us. He says that anyone who could come after him must hate his or her own family and even his or her own life. Now, Jesus doesn’t literally mean that we must hate our family members. That would contradict the call to love our neighbors, and even our enemies. If we’re supposed to love all neighbors and enemies, how much more should we love our family members? The language of “hate” is a Semitic expression, an idiom. It means that our love for Jesus should so far outweigh our love for anyone else that it looks, in comparison, as if we “hate” them. But that’s not a literal hate. It means to love less.[2] Jesus demands ultimate allegiance.

There have been many times throughout history, in various places and cultures, when and where following Jesus has meant being distanced from one’s family. In the early days of the church, to be a Christian might mean being separated from one’s non-Christian Jewish family members, or from one’s non-Christian pagan family members. To become a Protestant, trusting Jesus alone for your salvation, might mean leaving behind the Catholic faith and, in some Catholic cultures, this could mean being distanced from family. In Muslim cultures and countries, being a Christian can mean being disowned from family. In some cases, becoming a Christian means putting your own life in danger.

The point is that we have to love Jesus more than anything else, even our own safety and security. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that our hearts are given to what we treasure (Matt. 6:21). He says that we can’t serve two masters, because our hearts will be divided (Matt. 6:24). We must serve Jesus, which means that we must give him not just obedience, but our hearts.

Jesus then goes on to talk about the cost of following him. We must be willing to give up safety and comfort to follow him. Let’s read verses 27–33:

27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Jesus says that if you are not willing to bear your own cross and come after him, you cannot be his disciple. He has already said something similar in Luke. This is what he said in Luke 9:23–24: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” What does it mean to bear your cross or take it up daily? The cross was an instrument of shame, torture, and death. The Roman Empire used it to kill enemies of the state in a very public way. It was reserved for those who weren’t Roman citizens, and for the worst of criminals. Death by crucifixion was slow and agonizing—that’s why we have that word “excruciating.” And it was death in public, in view of passersby. It was a way of saying, “Don’t mess with Rome or this will happen to you!”

So, when Jesus tells those who would follow him that they must take up a cross, he means they must be willing to suffer, to even die if it should come to that. Now, most Christians will not be put to death because they are Christians. But that has happened throughout history, and it still happens in certain parts of the world. For most of us, it means being willing to be called names, or to be regarded as fools. Being a Christian often means having priorities that don’t line up with the prevailing culture. It means having unpopular views. Non-Christians will sometimes resent that we don’t bow the knee and pledge allegiance to what is popular. In the early church, that meant not regarding Caesar, the Emperor, as Lord, as the ultimate King. Being a Christian means that you believe Jesus is the ultimate authority, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Romans were expected to worship the emperor, but Christianity forbids us to worship anyone but the triune God. Today, Christians often have different views on controversial topics like sexuality and abortion, but also about how to use money, caring for the poor, and many other issues. In the past, Christians have been against slavery when others wanted it, and this put them at odds with the world.

To be a Christian means being willing to follow Jesus even when it’s hard, even when it brings suffering and shame. This doesn’t mean that being a Christian always brings those things. Christians also experience many joys and comforts in this life. But we must be willing to experience those things for the sake of Jesus.

And that is one of the costs of becoming a Christian. So, Jesus tells those who would follow him to count the cost. Be like that man who was going to build a tower, which would have been a watchtower or perhaps even a barn of sorts that could store produce and tools. If someone is going to build such a structure, he has to figure out how much it will cost. If he doesn’t, he won’t finish the project and he’ll be ashamed. Likewise, a king going to battle must count the cost of war. If he goes to war without considering whether he can actually win, it could leave to great disaster and shame.

These things happen in real life, by the way. When we lived in Washington and I served a church there, there was another church that was right across the street from ours. Before we arrived at our church, that other church had plans to build a new building. They had a large parcel of land and they had recently built the outside of the new building. Eventually, they even paved a large parking lot in front of it. But the cost of the new building was greater than they had anticipated, so they couldn’t finish the new building. It was empty and unfinished inside. It was useless. Likewise, a half-Christian, not willing to go the distance for Jesus, is useless.

Countries have gone to war without carefully considering what war will cost in terms of dollars and, more importantly, in terms of human lives. And that always brings disaster. It ends in national debt, many lives lost, and futility. One could argue that our country’s wars over the last fifty or sixty years have been like that. So it is with someone who likes Jesus, who even sees his or her need to follow him, but doesn’t carefully think about what it will mean to follow Jesus throughout life.

Those who aren’t willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads are ultimately useless. That’s the point that Jesus makes in verses 34 and 35:

34 “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? 35 It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

This saying about salt might seem odd. In the ancient world, salt had many uses, just as it has many uses today. It was used not only as seasoning for foods, but also as a preservative and a fertilizer. Today, we can buy all kinds of pure salt to use for cooking or to put on ice in the winter. But in those days, salt was often mixed with impurities like gypsum. Whenever the salt was dissolved in water, the other minerals were left behind. Salt had lost its saltiness and was therefore useless. According to Darrel Bock, “Bakers covered the floor of their ovens with salt to give a catalytic effect on the burning fuel, which was usually cattle dung. After a time, the effect wore off and the salt was thrown away.”[3] Obviously, you wouldn’t use that “salt” on your food, but it also couldn’t be used for anything else. Bock says, “Salt used for fertilizer wilted weeds and improved the soil at a deeper level, but useless salt was discarded.”[4]

A person who claims to be a Christian yet who doesn’t have a distinctive Christian character is useless. He or she isn’t really a Christian at all, and never was one. And he or she will be “thrown away,” or condemned.

For those familiar with the whole of the Bible, or at least the New Testament, you know that being a Christian isn’t a matter of self-identifying as a Christian. We can self-identify as many things, but that doesn’t mean we actually are those things. If I self-identify as Superman right now, that doesn’t mean I can fly, see through walls, or deflect bullets. In a similar way, self-identifying as a Christian doesn’t mean you actually love Jesus more than anything else. It’s easy to say you’re a Christian, but it’s another thing to actually be one. To be a Christian, you must love Jesus more than anything. You must deny yourself, which often means continually repenting, turning away from sin, from the things that God has forbidden because they are destructive, and turning back to God’s ways. It means being willing to suffer for Jesus. It means being willing to move, to change jobs, to sell possessions—if that’s what he calls you to do.

Now, Jesus doesn’t always call us to do those drastic things. He did call some of his disciples to leave their professions as fishermen or as a tax collector (Luke 5:1–11, 27–28). But often, Jesus doesn’t call us to leave jobs or situations. Instead, he asks us to live as Christians within those circumstances (1 Cor. 7:17–24). Peter, one of the disciples, left his occupation of being a fisherman, but he was married and wasn’t required to leave his wife. But we must be willing to leave everything to follow Jesus if that’s what he leads us to do. Similarly, I doubt that any of us will die for our faith, but we must be willing to do so.

For most of us, being a Christian will mean being obedient to Jesus because we love him. It will mean a life of being committed to a local church, reading the Bible, praying, telling other people about Jesus, giving to the church and to the poor. If you’re married, it will either mean loving your wife as Christ loved the church or honoring your husband as you honor Christ (Eph. 5:22ff.). If you’re single, it will mean refraining from sex and living as if Christ is your ultimate spouse (see 1 Cor. 7). If you’re a parent, it will mean raising your children with discipline and teaching them about Jesus (Eph. 6:4). If you’re a child, it will mean honoring your parents and obeying them (Eph. 6:1–3). It will mean lots of things like working hard, keeping yourself from lust and coveting and all kinds of destructive behavior. If you aren’t committed to these ongoing acts of faith, you aren’t really a Christian. You’re not really salt, but worthless trace minerals that will be thrown out.

To be a Christian is not to be fan of Jesus, to like what he did, but to realize that he is our only hope, that he is our King, to live under his rule so that you can receive his blessings. Jesus says that we should “come after” him. That language is used in the Bible to describe either coming after God, walking with him, or going after false gods (Deut. 6:14; 13:4; 1 Kings 11:2; 14:8; 18:21; Jer. 11:10; 13:10; 16:11; Hos. 2:5, 13).[5] All of us will make something or someone the ultimate thing in life. Some people may make their careers their ultimate object of trust and worship. They will sacrifice things in order to have a career. That’s often what “great” people have done. That means their careers were their gods, their true king. Some people will make money or power their god. Others will make a relationship—a husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend, or even a child—their god. Others will make comfort, safety, entertainment their god. What we trust the most, what we focus on the most, what we love and obey the most is the object of our worship, our true God. Jesus says that we must “go after” him. He is the God-man, the only way to God the Father, the one who gives us God the Spirit. And only he can do that.

The question for us today is, Are we really going after Jesus? Are we truly following him? Or are we just paying lip-service to Jesus? Are we doing our token rituals, like coming to church on Sunday morning? Do we really love Jesus?

When thinking about all of this, I think of the beginning of the book of Revelation. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, and it’s hard to understand because it’s full of symbols and fantastical imagery. But there are some clearer parts of the book. Jesus tells the apostle John to send letters to seven representative churches, all located in the province of Asia Minor, which is part of what we now call Turkey. This is what Jesus says to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev. 2:2–5).

The church had abandoned its love for Jesus. It wasn’t doing the things that it used to do for Jesus. And Jesus says that if they don’t change their ways, he will remove that church. And that happens. Churches often lose their passion for Jesus. Worship becomes a ritual. People mumble the words of hymns and songs instead of making a joyful noise. People stop telling others about Jesus. Churches like that eventually die.

Now, I want to say something very clearly to this church: If we don’t truly love Jesus, if we don’t obey him in all that we do, if we don’t do things here with passion and excellence, and if we don’t evangelize, this local church could easily die. Frankly, I think that’s what was happening in this church for a long time. We need to consider whether we’re truly following Jesus.

I want to say something else, this time for people who may not yet be Christians. Jesus’ call to be willing to suffer, to renounce all that we have in this life, and even to die for his sake may sound cruel and abusive. It may sound sadistic, even. Why would anyone do that?

There are at least two reasons. The first reason is that Jesus doesn’t just call us to suffer and die. He also promises people that if they follow him, they will receive priceless treasures. I just quoted Revelation 2, in which Jesus chastise a church. Consider verse 7: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” What that means is that Jesus will give his followers eternal life. They will live in a paradise with him forever. One day, when Jesus returns, he will recreate the universe to be perfect. There won’t be suffering or pain, loneliness or depression, natural disasters or wars. There won’t be any death. Everything will be right. Christianity makes the bold claim that those who follow Jesus will live forever. But it also makes the bold claim that only followers of Jesus will live in that perfect world. All others who don’t follow Jesus will be condemned by God. It won’t be heaven on earth for them, but an eternity of separation from God, which we call hell.

The second reason why Jesus can demand that his followers be willing to suffer and die is because Jesus first suffered and died. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed. Yet he added a second nature, becoming a human being, more than two thousand years ago. He did that to live the life that you and I don’t live, a perfect life of loving God the Father and worshiping him, loving him and loving others. Only Jesus lived a sinless life. He did that so that all who follow him could be credited with that moral perfection. And Jesus became a man to die in place of men and women, to take the penalty that they deserve for their sin. But Jesus didn’t die for everyone. He died for those who would love, trust, and follow him. Only those who realize that he is the Son of God, who are willing to come under his rule, who trust that his works are the only way to be right with God, will live with him in that paradise. Only they will have their sins forgiven. Only they will be adopted into God’s family. Only they will receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who comes to dwell in Christians and give them the power to follow Jesus. Jesus suffered and died to save us, and all who are saved must be willing to follow Jesus, even if it means suffering and dying. It will cost us to follow Jesus, but salvation doesn’t cost us anything. It cost Jesus everything.

There’s another letter in Revelation, to a church in the city of Laodicea, which was known for its wealth. It was a center of banking. It was known for producing black wool and garments. It was also a center of medicine, known for a certain salve that was supposed to help eye diseases. This is what Jesus says to that church, in Revelation 3:15–22:

15 “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. 17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”

The church apparently didn’t see their need for Jesus. They didn’t realize that, in reality, they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” They trusted in their money, their clothing industry, their ability to cure eyes. But the truth is that none of those things made them right with God. None of those things could grant them eternal life. Jesus says they had become useless. They were neither hot, like the hot springs in the city of Hierapolis, which was six miles to the north. Nor were they cold, like the cold water that came from the city of Colosse, ten miles to the east. They were a mixture that wasn’t good for anything. They were salt that lost its saltiness, and Jesus was going to spit them out if they didn’t repent. But if they turned to Jesus for salvation, they would sit on his throne with them. They would dine with him. They would be at peace.

That is true for us today. If we don’t realize our need for Jesus and live for him, we will be spit out, cast out, condemned. But if we turn to Jesus and follow him, we will live with him forever.

Before I conclude, I want to say this to Christians: There are many ways we can lose our saltiness. One is a lack of commitment. That is one of the great problems of our age. We don’t commit to much of anything, other than ourselves. If you’re committed to Christ, you will be committed to a local church. You will show up each week unless you’re really sick or out of town. You will join the church, coming under the authority of its leaders and ultimately the whole congregation. You will serve the church.

Another way to lose saltiness is through lack of love for Jesus and for others. Selfishness and a lack of care for God and others will cause us to be hypocrites.

Yet another way to lose saltiness is anti-intellectualism. We won’t use our minds to love God. We won’t read the Bible and think carefully of how it applies to all of life. We won’t train our minds to learn to think about how to share the gospel, or how to work Christianly, or how to do marriage Christianly, or raise our kids Christianly.

Another way to lose our saltiness is materialism, loving stuff more than Jesus. Or Hedonism, seeking pleasure in created things instead of finding our greatest pleasures in Christ. We are drowning in entertainment and trivial pursuits, which cause our saltiness to erode.

And there are so many other ways to lose a distinctive Christian character. What is the best way to remain “salty”? We must fix our eyes on Christ. This is what Paul commanded Christians to do, in Colossians 3:1–4:

1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

We must be reminded of the truth, about who Jesus is, our need for him, about how this life is fleeting, and that we are called to love God and to obey him. If we don’t fix our minds on these things, we will be useless. This reminds me of something that C. S. Lewis wrote in his famous book, Mere Christianity:

If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.[6]

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and you will get God and paradise, and your life will be great. If you don’t live for him, you won’t get God, paradise, or greatness.

Notes:

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. See Gen. 29:30–31; Deut. 21:15–17; Judg. 14:16.
  3. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 9:51–24:53, vol. 2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 1290.
  4. Ibid., 1292.
  5. Ibid., 1287.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 134.

 

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Count the Cost (Luke 14:25-35)

What does it mean to be a Christian? Taking up your cross and following Jesus. What does it cost us to follow Jesus? Nothing and everything, depending on how you look at it. Find out what Jesus says about following him and the cost of discipleship by listening to this sermon on Luke 14:25-35, given by Brian Watson on June 30, 2019.

A Great Banquet

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on June 16, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Recently, I was in Louisville, Kentucky, to do course work on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Southern Seminary. I started this degree last year, and I have to travel to campus twice a year. When I’m there, I usually go out to dinner with a group of other students. Since none of us live in Louisville, we’re not sure of the best places to eat. So, we get on our phones, and with apps like Yelp or TripAdvisor, we look up well-rated restaurants. We can see where the restaurant is on the map, what kind of food it serves, see pictures of the food, and even look at the menu. One of the students had a car, so we could drive to the restaurant of our choice quite easily. And there were many choices. A few times, it took us more than a few minutes to settle on one place. But it was rather easy.

This reminds me of what a young comedian once said. In describing his generation, he said that he often would spend so much time trying to figure out which restaurant to eat at (he lived in New York City), that by the time he was settling on a place, he realized he had run out of time, so had to make himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

We have so many choices today, more than ever before. And it’s so easy to get good food, if we want it. But since we’re drowning in choices, and since so many things compete for our attention, time, energy, and money, we often don’t make the right choice. Instead of choosing the best food, we settle for something quick and easy.

Though we have more choices than ever before, there have always been things that have competed for people’s attention, time, energy, love, money, and other precious resources. And people have always made bad choices.

I mention this because today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’ll see that Jesus tells a couple of parables about meals. In one of them, he warns people about trying to exalt themselves. In the other, he says that the kingdom of God is like a great feast, and many people have been invited to it. But people offer up excuses as to why they can’t come. They have chosen lesser things instead of coming to the great banquet. Those who choose not to come to this meal will never eat the finest of foods, the food that they need.

We’re looking at Luke 14:7–24 today. As your turn there in your Bible, I want to remind us that Luke is a biography of Jesus. Luke told his readers that he had written his biography of Jesus based on eyewitness testimony so “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).[1] Luke wanted his readers to know that what they had already been taught about Jesus was true, that what he writes is real history. It is the truth.

In this section of Luke, we read about Jesus’ many conflicts with the religious leaders of the day, primarily the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders who were known for their pious adherence to the law that God had given Israel at Mount Sinai many centuries before. Jesus often criticizes these men for seeking honor instead of righteousness, for being hypocrites, and for missing the point of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. But Jesus has a lot more to say than just criticizing the religious powers that be. He teaches all of us about the kingdom of God and how to be a part of that kingdom, where God not only rules over his people, but also blesses them. And in today’s section of Luke, we see that Jesus talks about what those who are part of God’s kingdom should and should not do.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 14:7–11. There first point of this passage is to humble yourself so that you will not later be humbled.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

A couple of weeks ago, we read the beginning of this chapter, when we learned that Jesus was eating in the home of a Pharisee (Luke 14:1). He’s still there, talking to those who were invited to that meal.

The Pharisees were the kind of people who liked to look good. They were concerned about their public reputation. In fact, it seems that they were more concerned about appearances than about the state of their hearts. In Luke 11:43, Jesus chastises them for seeking honor. He says, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Once again, at this meal, Jesus sees that they chose the places of honor at this meal. In the ancient world, honor was very important. Where you sat at a meal indicated your status. This is still true to some extent. If you attend a wedding and you’re seated closer to the bathroom than the wedding party, that tells you a lot about how much the bride and groom value you. But it was more important in the ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman world. Sitting next to the host indicated that you were higher up on the social ladder than those who sat farther away.

Jesus sees the Pharisees scrambling to fill the places of honor, so he tells them a parable, which, in this case, isn’t much of a story, but is really a bit of sound advice. He tells them not to sit down at a place of honor. Why? Because there may be “someone more distinguished than you” who comes along and is given your place. Then, you will have to face the shame of moving to a lower place. Jesus says that it’s better to take a lower place and then later be asked to sit in a higher place.

Now, this is sound advice. It’s actually found in Proverbs 25:6–7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great,
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

It’s better to be humble and be elevated than to be proud and face the potential embarrassment of being knocked down a rung or two on the social ladder.

But Jesus isn’t just dispensing common sense, or nice little life lessons. He’s teaching something far more important. He says, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Both James and Peter quote the Greek version of Proverbs 3:34, which says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). James continues to say, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Jesus is getting at something far more important than proper dining etiquette. Those who are concerned with honor in this life may very well not receive any honor in the life to come. Those who are proud, who strive for positions of power and prominence, may be knocked low for eternity. Those who are part of God’s kingdom have nothing to boast about, because they realize their status is a gift from God, not something they’ve earned, and certainly not something they’re entitled to.

This becomes clearer in the next paragraph in Luke 14, when Jesus tells those dining with him who they should and should not invite to a feast. Let’s read verses 12–14:

12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

In the ancient world, it was assumed that you would be kind to those who could be kind to you in return. In other words, you would give something to those who could give you something back later. If you held a feast, you wouldn’t invite people unless they could give you something back later, whether that was an invitation to their own feast, some kind of honor, money, business, or something else valuable.

But Jesus says that we shouldn’t give to expect something back in return. He says not to invite the rich and powerful, “lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid.” Earlier in Luke, he said, “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).

In that verse and in the verses we just read from Luke 14, Jesus mentions being rewarded, but not from others in this life. The reward doesn’t come from those we’ve flattered, buttered up, and served so that we can receive from them later. No, the reward comes from God. On that great day of resurrection, when human history as we know it is brought to an end, that day when Jesus returns to the world to settle all accounts and to make all things new, the just, those who have been declared righteous in God’s sight, will be rewarded. Jesus doesn’t mean that we earn salvation by doing a lot of good works, by inviting poor people over to our house. That would be contrary to so much that we read in the rest of the Bible. What he means is that those who have received God’s grace, those who have the gift of being declared right in God’s sight through faith in Jesus, will extend that grace to others. They will live differently. They will invite others to their homes who can’t pay them back, who aren’t in a position to do favors in return.

Speaking of grace, we all know that famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Many of us know that the words were written by John Newton, a man who once was a slave trader and who later became a pastor. Newton wrote many hymns, but also many sermons and letters. In one letter, he writes this:

Let your friends who are in good circumstances be plainly told, that, though you love them, prudence, and the necessary charge of a family, will not permit you to entertain them, no, not for a night. What! say you, shut my door against my friends? Yes, by all means, rather than against Christ. If the Lord Jesus was again upon earth, in a state of humiliation, and he, and the best friend you have, standing at your door, and your provision so strait that you could not receive both, which would you entertain? Now, he says of the poor, “Inasmuch as ye did it to the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” ‘Your friends have houses of their own, and money to pay at an inn, if you do not take them in; but the poor need relief. One would almost think that passage, Luke 14:12–14, was not considered as a part of God’s word; at least I believe there is no one passage so generally neglected by his own people. I do not think it unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us, that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.[2]

That may be a bit extreme. The Bible doesn’t forbid eating with friends, and Newton recognizes that. But the point is that if we had to choose between hosting a friend or hosting a poor person, we should choose the poor. We all can and should be gracious not just to those who are like us, those who are already kind and generous towards us. That’s what the world does. Earlier in Luke, when Jesus talked about not giving in order to receive, he said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Luke 6:32–33).

If you’re a Christian, you should realize that everything you have is a gift from God (James 1:17). You don’t experience God’s goodness because you have earned it or because you’re entitled to it. In fact, God has told us that we don’t deserve anything from God except judgment because we have failed to love him and obey him. We fail to obey him because we fail to love him and trust that his ways are good. Instead of God being the King of our lives, we would rather live like kings and queens of our own little dominions. Our sin is a personal, relational issue—a failure to love and live for God, as well as a failure to love our neighbors—and our sin is also an authority issue—we don’t want to come under God’s authority, so we rebel against him. Because of that, we deserve to be excluded from the great feast that God has prepared for all the citizens of his kingdom.

And that brings us to the next paragraph in Luke 14. In the first paragraph, Jesus teaches that those who humble themselves will be exalted. In the second paragraph, he teaches us to invite the humble to our feasts. And in this third paragraph, he tells a parable about a great banquet. Here are verses 15–24:

15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

After Jesus has taught a bit about honor and humility and whom to invite to a feast, as well as what will happen at the day of judgment, someone at this particular meal blurts out, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Perhaps he did that to break the tension, to change the subject. Or perhaps he meant it. At any rate, Jesus uses that statement to teach about the kingdom. He tells another story.

The story is quite simple. A man once held a banquet, a great feast. At the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned how easy it is to find good places to eat. Going out to eat is more expensive than cooking food at home, but it’s relatively easy for us to afford a nice meal. Compared to people of all times and places, we eat like kings and queens. In the ancient world, preparing a feast was a big deal. It’s not like people had refrigerators and freezers and supermarkets. If you slaughtered an animal, you had to cook it quickly and eat it quickly. You couldn’t save the leftovers. If you killed a fattened calf to eat, you would invite many people to come to eat. And preparing a meal would involve much more, such as making your own bread. The point is that having a great banquet was special, it required a lot of sacrifice and effort on the part of the host, and if people were invited, they were expected to come.

In this story, invitations were sent out to many people. And it seems like they at first accepted the invitation. But when the time of the banquet arrives, everyone who was invited has an excuse as to why they can’t come. One says he bought a field and now has to see it, which is rather strange. Who buys something sight unseen? And why is it such a pressing issue to see this field? Couldn’t it wait until the following day? Another person says he bought fight yoke of oxen and has to examine them. Again, who would buy expensive animals without first examining them? And even if you bought them sight unseen, it’s not like you couldn’t wait until later to get a good look at them. The third excuse comes from a man who says he has just become married. There may be a hint here that he will be too busy romancing his wife to come to this feast. Again, this is no emergency. The man could have a date night with his wife at some other time. These excuses are lame. In fact, they’re insulting. It’s like inviting someone to your wedding, only to be told they can’t come because they have to mow their lawn.

So, in this story, the servant who invited people to his master’s feast tells the master about the lame excuses he is given. The master rightly becomes angry. He tells the servant not only to invite “the poor and crippled and blind and lame,” but also to bring them in. This suggests that they would need help getting to the party. In this society, people wouldn’t think to first invite the poor and disabled. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, but they were not regarded as honorable. According to Jewish law, those who were disabled couldn’t serve as priests in the tabernacle and temple (Lev. 21:17–23). They were regarded as unclean, as outcasts. They wouldn’t be able to repay the master of the feast by inviting him to their own feasts, because they wouldn’t ever be in a position to give a feast. You had to have wealth to do that.

When the servant brings in the poor and the disabled, he tells his master that there is still room for more guests at the great banquet. The master then tells the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel to people to come in, that my house may be filled.” Some people believe this is a reference to Gentiles. “If the Jews won’t come, then invite the Gentiles to the party!” Some people have misused this verse to try to coerce people to become Christians, to “compel” them by force to make a profession of faith. I don’t think either of those views are correct. Yes, Paul said many times that because many Jewish people wouldn’t believe his message about Jesus that he would go to the Gentiles. But Paul was a Jewish man who came to faith after first rejecting an invitation to the Lord’s table. And he always held out hope that more Jews would come to Jesus. And Christianity has never been spread through force or violence, because it can’t. We can’t force people to believe something that they don’t. We try to reason with people and persuade them to put their trust in Jesus. We invite them to taste and see that the Lord is good, but we cannot force anyone to come into God’s kingdom.

The point that Jesus is making is that there is room for all kinds of people in God’s kingdom: the misfits, the outcasts, and so forth. There may be many who make excuses as to why they don’t put their trust in Jesus, why they don’t live for him, read their Bibles, come to church, or obey God’s commands. There will always be people who make those excuses. But the ones who realize that this invitation is the best offer they will ever receive will come.

Throughout history, there have been rich Christians, people of high standing. But more often than not, the people who realize their need for Jesus are people who are, in the world’s eyes, weak and poor. The apostle Paul told Christians in the Greek city of Corinth:

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

God often chooses to demonstrate his strength through the weak, his wisdom through the simple and uneducated, his glory through the humble. What matters is whether we realize that all of us are foolish, weak, and low, and whether we realize the invitation that Jesus gives to us is to the greatest feast ever.

What kind of feast are we invited to? The answer is given by the prophet Isaiah. He looked forward to a time when God would recreate the world to be a paradise, a new creation without sin and death (Isa. 65:17). In one of the many passages where Isaiah reveals what will happen at the end of history, he writes this:

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

Perhaps we don’t appreciate this image of a feast because it’s so easy for us to get food. In fact, we have too much food. We’re in a strange position in America: we’re not harmed by lack but by abundance. It’s easy enough to get some pretty good food, and more than we need.

But think about all the good meals you’ve ever had. I’ve had a few experiences of eating in some expensive restaurants. Sometimes, I’ve eaten so much that I feel stuffed and bloated. When eating, I thought, “This is really good food!” But later, I thought, “I shouldn’t have eaten that much.” At other times, I’ve anticipated a meal only to think, “Is that all there is? Why did I pay that much for a meal that only satisfies me for a few hours?” That’s how it is with so much of what we choose in our lives, whether it’s a meal, a career, a relationship, entertainment, or anything else. We don’t feel satisfied. We wonder why we chose that thing that was bad for us. We’re disappointed. We realize that what we hoped would fill us has left us empty not long afterwards.

But think about the meal that Isaiah prophesied about, the great banquet he foresaw. Sure, he talks about rich food and well-aged wine. But those are just images of how God satisfies our spiritual cravings with the greatest food and the greatest pleasures. Then look what Isaiah says: at that time, God will remove the covering, the veil, that darkens our lives. He promises that God will swallow up death itself. No other feast promises us the end of death. No other invitation that we might receive makes such a grand promise. We might be invited to many things in this life: a party, a game, a rock concert, a job offer, a way to have some quick and cheap pleasure. But none of these things will ultimately satisfy us. And certainly none of those things will remove that great and ugly destroyer of pleasure and hope: death itself.

But Jesus offers us an invitation to life that never ends. He promised us food that will satisfy, that wouldn’t leave us feeling hungry or bloated or sick. And the reason that Jesus can make that invitation is because he is the one who gives us that spiritual food.

Think about eating. What do you do when you eat? You take something that was once living, and you consume it so you can live. Think about eating the choicest steak. That once was a cow. Even vegetarians eat things that once were living. To live, we need to feed on something that dies. And this is true of spiritual life. In order to live, we must have a way to evade God’s wrath against our sin. We must find a way to escape punishment on that great day of resurrection. If we were to stand on trial before God, who knows everything we’ve ever thought, every twisted desire we’ve ever had, every foolish or cruel word we’ve ever spoken, and every other action we’ve ever performed, the evidence would not be in our favor. We would be found guilty, failing to love God and other people the way we should, failing to live according to God’s rules for life. We wouldn’t be invited to God’s table.

Only Jesus lived the perfect life. And if you take time to read about him in the Gospels, you’ll see how he always honored God the Father. He was never selfish or cruel. He never compromised. He never sold out for money or anything else. Only he lived a perfect life, never sinning. Yet he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin—if we trust him, if we accept his invitation, if we recognize that we have been spiritually blind and lame, if we humble ourselves. If we trust in him, Jesus’ death gives us life. He becomes our spiritual food that sustains us. He is the only way to the greatest feast, where death is abolished and where we are satisfied.

Jesus warned that those who reject his offer will never taste his banquet. His parable reflects something else in Isaiah:

11  “But you who forsake the Lord,
who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
12  I will destine you to the sword,
and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
and chose what I did not delight in.”

13  Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
but you shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
but you shall be put to shame;
14  behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
but you shall cry out for pain of heart
and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
15  You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
and the Lord God will put you to death,
but his servants he will call by another name” (Isa. 65:11–15).

If you are not yet a Christian, I urge you to humble yourself before the Lord, and to accept his gracious offer to come to his feast. Don’t make lame excuses: “I’m too busy. I’ll learn more about Jesus when I have time, but right now isn’t a good season in my life.” None of us know how much time we’ll have left to live. Take the offer now while it stands. When you’re dead, it will be too late.

If you are a Christian, invite others to come to this feast. If they make lame excuses, perhaps read Luke 14:15–24 to them. And be gracious. God has invited you, a spiritual outcast, to come to his table. He has taken you, a lowly person, and put you in an exalted position in his house. Be gracious to those who are lowly and weak, and give to those who are poor and can’t pay you back. If we have received our Lord’s invitation, let us follow our Lord’s example.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. John Newton, Richard Cecil, The Works of the John Newton, vol. 1 (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., 1824), 136.

 

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A Great Banquet (Luke 14:7-24)

While at a meal, Jesus talks about seats of honor and inviting people to the great banquet of the kingdom of God. Who will eat at God’s table? The one who is humble and accepts God’s invitation. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 14:7-24 on June 16, 2019.