Jesus does the unimaginable: he brings a dead man back to life. He can bring spiritually dead people to life through his word, and the dead will be raised at his command when he returns. Listen to this message on Luke 7:11-17, preached by Brian Watson.
Recently, I watched a movie called Darkest Hour, which is about Winston Churchill, England, and the events of 1940. Churchill has just become prime minister of England at a time when Germany has already invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway; they would soon invade Belgium and France. A number of people around him were urging Churchill to negotiate peace with Germany. Of course, from our perspective, that would be suicide, because we know that Hitler would not allow Europe to rest in any kind of undisturbed peace. But at that time, it seemed like there was no way England could win. America wouldn’t enter into the war until about a year-and-a-half later. There were 300,000 soldiers trapped in Dunkirk, France, between the German forces and the sea. Not surrendering—or, as it was put, “negotiating terms”—seemed foolish. But Churchill held his ground and he inspired the United Kingdom to fight. History has, of course, proved him right.
I’m sure history is full of similar stories of leaders who have chosen to do what is right instead of what is easy, who have chosen to do what is needed as opposed to what those around them want. While many choose the easiest path, the path of least resistance, leaders know that the they must choose the right path. That’s what makes them leaders. And it is in the best interest of those who are under their leadership to support them, trust them, and follow them.
Today, we’re going to continue to think about leadership within the church. Next week, I’ll go back to 1 Timothy to consider the role of deacons in the church. But today I want to focus on the responsibility that a church has in following its leader. The flock must follow its shepherd.
The theme of leadership—and rejected leaders—runs throughout the Bible. As long as more than one person exists, there will be leaders and followers.
In the beginning, God created human beings. He gave them a great role—to rule over his creation while reflecting his glory. But he also made them to come under his leadership. And the first human beings rejected his leadership. Instead of following God, they wanted to be like him, and they believed the lie that they could be like him by disobeying him.
In the book of Genesis, God starts to work with one man, Abraham, and his family becomes Israel. In time, Israel grows into a nation, a nation enslaved to the world’s superpower, Egypt. God heard the cries of his people and he sent them a leader, Moses, who brought them out of Egypt. He brought them out, of course through God’s power and through mighty acts—signs and wonders—that God performed. Even before that happened, there was a question of whether the Israelites would follow Moses. That’s because when Moses first told Pharaoh to let God’s people go, Pharaoh made life harder for the Israelite slaves. Some of the leaders of the Israelites told Moses, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exod. 5:21). Soon after, the whole people of Israel “did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery” (Exod. 6:9).
Yet God continued to use Moses, and he delivered the Israelites out of slavery and out of Egypt through a series of ten plagues. Yet even after that great deliverance, the people still complained. When they were trapped between the Red Sea on one side and the Egyptian army on the other, the people said to Moses, “Is it because there are not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exod. 14:11–12). But the people did not die. Instead, God rescued them once again by a miracle, parting the Red Sea so the Israelites could pass on dry ground, and then closing the Red Sea on their Egyptian oppressors.
Yet even after that, the people complained! They “grumbled” about a lack of water and food. They complained against Moses’ leadership and said they would have been better off dying in Egypt (Exod. 16:3). Moses understood that their complaints ultimately weren’t against him; they were against God: “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). Yet God graciously met their needs. But because of the people’s disobedience and grumbling, God let a whole generation die in the wilderness instead of entering immediately into the Promised Land of Canaan (Num. 14:26–33).
The people wanted good things that a leader could provide—freedom, food, a new place where they could inherit land and live. But when a leader made decisions that they didn’t understand, they grumbled. Yet Moses had been commissioned by God to lead the people. Moses followed God, not the whims of the people.
One of our presidents, Harry Truman, once said, “I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt.” If Moses catered to the people and their desires, perhaps they never would have left Egypt. They surely never would have arrived in the Promised Land, because their rebellion against God would have gone unchecked. Leaders need to make necessary decisions, not according to what the people want, but according to what they need.
Winston Churchill, once said, “I hear it said that leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.” His humorous point is that a leader who is afraid to make decisions that need to be made, but who instead worries about what the people are saying, is unworthy of respect. Great leaders must make the right decisions, not the popular ones.
I read both of those quotes, by Truman and Churchill, in a great book by a Christian man named Os Guinness. That book is called A Free People’s Suicide, which is about how American, the Free People of the title, are committing suicide by misusing their freedom. Guinness says that “America . . . is suffering from an overdose of . . . too much peer influence, too many polls and too much pandering.”
We need to be led, and there are times when we even want a leader, but we don’t want a leader who will challenge us or do things we don’t like or understand. The book of Judges is a great example of this. The judges are not people who hear court trials. No, they are leaders, basically military saviors. There’s a pattern in the book of Judges: The people disobey God and start worshiping idols. God gives the people over to their enemies. The people cry out to God for help and he gives them a judge. The judge defeats the enemies. But in time, the people forget, they disobey God, and start worshiping idols again. The people wanted safety, but they didn’t want God.
One of the judges was Gideon. After God used Gideon to save the Israelites, some of the men of Israel say to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also, for you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” Again, the people wanted a leader who could protect them from their enemies. Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judg. 8:22–23). That was a wise thing to say. God is supposed to be the true King. However, God leads his people through human leaders. Yet it was good that Gideon didn’t become king, because he soon asked the people for gold and then he made for himself an ephod, which was a garment that only the high priest was supposed to wear. This is what the Bible says: “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city, in Ophrah. And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Judg. 8:27). What that means is that Gideon led the people to worship idols. Idolatry is likened to being unfaithful, to “whoring.” The leader that the people wanted was a bad one. They didn’t want God or a godly man to be king.
Toward the end of the book of Judges, things go from bad to worse. And there’s a line that is repeated, like a refrain of a tragic song: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
After the time of the judges, Israel had kings. That’s a long story that we don’t have time for. Suffice it to say, many of them were bad. They often followed their own sinful desires instead of obeying God. Even the best king, David, had some significant sins in his life. So, God promised to send a better king, a perfect king who would rule with justice and righteousness. That king, of course, is Jesus.
Jesus is the perfect leader. Of course, he’s the God-man, truly God and truly man, so he can be both a divine leader and a human leader through whom God leads. While on the earth, Jesus was strong and courageous, but also compassionate. According to Matthew’s Gospel, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Jesus healed the sick, he welcomed outsiders, people who were considered egregious sinners, and he taught about forgiveness, grace, ad love. Jesus not only came to save us by dying for our sins on the cross, but he also came to correct and lead us. Jesus always said and did what was right and what was needed, not what people wanted and certainly not what was popular. He is the King we need.
As a leader, Jesus also demanded that people follow and obey him. One of the things he says often in the Gospels is “follow me” (Matt. 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 19:21). Jesus demands allegiance. At one point, in Matthew 10, he taught this:
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:37–39).
And Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; cf. verses 21, 23).
Many people like some of what Jesus says, or they even like the idea of a savior who will get them out of hell and into heaven. But many people don’t like the idea of obedience. For some people, “obey” is a four-letter word. And those who don’t think “obey” is a four-letter word are bad at spelling, which means they didn’t obey their teachers. The point is that we don’t like the idea of obedience, particularly in our day and age.
A couple of months ago, I mentioned that an atheistic philosopher named Thomas Nagel admitted that much. He said, “I want atheism to be true and am uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” He then says, “My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.” He admits that the reason he didn’t want there to be a God is because he doesn’t want a “cosmic authority” over him, telling him how to live.
Another author, a Christian named Timothy Witmer, says, “The deterioration of respect for authority in culture has its root in a failure to respect the sovereign lordship of the ultimate authority, the living God who is the Shepherd and authority of all of life.” In other words, the reason we don’t like human authority is because we first don’t like God’s authority.
We find the same thing in the church, unfortunately. We want to have a relationship with Jesus, but we want it on our terms. We want to have all the blessings that Jesus offers, particularly forgiveness of sins and eternal life, without committing to Jesus and his church. Or, we want to commit to Jesus without committing to a local church and submitting to the leaders of a local church.
The problem is that such attitudes aren’t biblical. If we love Jesus, we’ll love his church. If we love Jesus and his church, we’ll obey his commands and we’ll obey the leaders of his church. We see this in at least two passages in the New Testament. One is 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13:
12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.
That passage is quite easy to understand. The ones whom Paul is referring to are the leaders of the church. They are the pastors/elders/overseers. They labor among the people, doing the work that God has called them to. Paul tells the Thessalonians to respect them and to esteem in love, because of their work. And I think the idea is that if they do that, there will be “peace among yourselves.”
The other passage that talks about following church leaders goes beyond the words “respect” and “esteem” and uses that ugly four-letter word, “obey.” In Hebrews 13, the author first says, in verse 7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” The leaders here are people who “spoke . . . the word of God” to them. He tells his readers to imitate these leaders. Then, in verse 17, we read this:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Not only do we get that four-letter word, “obey,” but we get a dreaded six-letter word, “submit.” In other words, “come under their leadership.” Why? Because “they are keeping watch over your souls.” These are pastors, who are caring for the souls of their people. It’s in the best interest of a Christian to obey and submit to a pastor, because that person is looking out for that person’s soul. Not only that, but this pastor “will have to give an account” to God. A good pastor faithfully follows God’s word. And he will have to give an account to God for what he has done (cf. James 3:1). Another reason why people should obey church leaders is that this makes their work “joy” instead of “groaning.” And having a pastor whose job has become “groaning” would be of no advantage to anyone.
It’s hard to overstress the importance of this. The church shouldn’t be like Israel in the book of Judges, where everyone does what is right in their own eyes. God created the church, and he gave the church leaders. Not just preachers or chaplains, but leaders. Yet people often don’t treat pastors as real authorities.
I think we in America at this time are rather allergic to authorities. But pastors have long complained about people not listening to them. This is what Origen (185–253), a third-century pastor and theologian, said to his congregation almost 1,800 years ago:
The Lord has entrusted me with the task of giving his household their allowance of food [Bible teaching] at the appointed time [Lk 12:42]. . . . But how can I? Where and when can I find a time when you will listen to me? The greater part of your time, nearly all of it in fact, you spend on mundane things, in the market-place or the shops; some of you are busy in the country, others wrapped up in litigation. Nobody, or hardly anybody, bothers about God’s Word. . . . But why complain about those who are not here? Even those who are, those of you who have come to church, are paying no attention. You can take an interest in tales that have become worn out through repetition, but you turn your backs on God’s Word and the reading of Holy Scripture.”
I find that quote surprisingly relevant. At first, Origen is preaching to those who aren’t even there, who would rather do anything than come to church. But then he starts preaching to the choir, as it were. And the choir is bored with the things of God, though they take great interest in tales. You can hear Origen’s frustration, his “groaning.”
I suppose some people will come up with excuses for not following their church leaders. They may say things that suggest they should only follow Jesus, as if following Jesus and following their pastor are mutually exclusive things. They’ll talk about how much they love Jesus and have precious quiet times with him, while they don’t listen to their pastors. If you love Jesus, you will obey him. And Jesus has told us, through apostles and prophets, to obey the pastors of the church. How you treat Jesus’ church is a reflection of how you treat Jesus. When Jesus confronted Saul on the road to Damascus, said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul, better known as Paul, was arresting Christians, who would probably then die for their faith. Jesus told him that to persecute the church is to persecute him. Similarly, not following pastors means not following Jesus.
There are times when a pastor is younger than many of the people in his congregation. Older people might take a verse out of context to suggest that the younger pastor must actually follow the older congregation. First Peter 5:5 says, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.” And, after all, they’re paying his salary.
But that passage, 1 Peter 5, is talking about pastors. Pastors are called elders because “elder” was a term used in Judaism to describe a leader of a family or a synagogue. Quite naturally, this person was usually an older man. But in the church, an elder is not always older. In her commentary on 1 Peter, Karen Jobes writes, “The contrast is not between the older men and the younger men of the church.” If that were so, a different Greek word for “younger” would be used. “Rather it is between those who have the seniority and the commensurate standing that qualifies them to be [elders] in contrast to those who, for whatever reason, do not. Official elders of the church were naturally chosen from those who held seniority in the faith, which most often also corresponded to physical age. Those not (yet) qualified to be elders were ‘younger’ in standing in the church.” And as we’ll see later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells his younger associate, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Another excuse not to follow a pastor might be, “I’m not officially a member of this church.” Many people no longer commit to a local church. According to Timothy Witmer, “People are showing increasing reluctance to identify themselves with a particular flock, to make the commitment of church membership vows, and to submit to the authority of shepherd-elders inherent in those commitments.” I think officially being part of a local church and submitting to the leadership of that church is presupposed in many passages in the New Testament, including the passages that we’ve read. And I think you can make a great argument for saying that a failure to commit to a local church is a failure to commit truly to Jesus.
Though we don’t like words such as “obey” and “submit,” there are many good reasons for obeying pastors.
The first main reason is that it is for your good. Pastors have been spiritually gifted to teach God’s word. Last week we saw that Jesus gave the church pastor-teachers in order to shepherd the flock and to equip the saints for ministry. A faithful pastor feeds his flock the word of God, protects them from false doctrine and sinful behaviors, and helps them serve God. This benefits those who follow their shepherds.
Pastor also have spiritual discernment. When it comes to making decisions, or seeing where the church should go, pastors have special insight. Pastors think often about ministry and the direction of the church. They consult other pastors. They study. Often, non-pastors just react from their gut. They say, “I like this,” or, “I don’t like that,” without really thinking about what the church should do.
Put another way, sheep don’t know where they’re supposed to go. That’s why they need a shepherd. The shepherd doesn’t survey the sheep and ask them all where they would like to go. No, the shepherd knows what is best for the sheep and he leads them to green pastures.
Another reason to follow pastors is that it’s not good to discourage pastors. There’s probably nothing more discouraging than having a congregation that doesn’t listen, that doesn’t follow. And this isn’t good for a congregation. I can tell you that most pastors are discouraged. Over time, a number of pastors leave ministry because of that discouragement. Many feel lonely and isolated.
When you follow pastors, you make their job a joy. When you don’t, you make their job a groaning. And it’s not beneficial to anyone if a pastor’s job has become groaning.
Now, does that mean you must always follow a pastor? No. You are free not to follow a pastor when he does something contrary to God’s word. If he teaches false doctrine, don’t follow. I don’t mean if he interprets a passage in a slightly different way. In fact, I think it’s often going to be the case that good pastors will correct a congregation’s understanding of the Bible. But if a pastor starts saying that you don’t need to believe in Jesus to be reconciled to God, or that there isn’t such a thing as hell, or that Jesus isn’t God, well, it’s time to get a new pastor or a new church.
If a pastor isn’t acting in accordance with the Bible, in his personal life or in the way he leads the church, then there are ways to address this. We’ll see this several weeks from now when we get to 1 Timothy 5. There is a time and place for criticizing a pastor, but this shouldn’t be done quickly or lightly. We all should be slow to speak and quick to listen. And I think we should approach pastors with that same attitude: quick to listen, quick to obey, quick to submit, quick to respect, slow to criticize and slow to accuse. And if any kind of accusation must be made, it has to be done on real, specific evidence that has been witnessed by at least two people (1 Tim. 5:19).
Unfortunately, there have been pastors who have misused their authority, and I suspect that’s why some people are very reluctant to obey pastors and submit to them. In a fallen world, such things will happen. Just because a shepherd has failed does not mean that the Good Shepherd, Jesus, has failed. When a pastor fails, he can be corrected and restored, if he repents. If he refuses to repent, he can be removed, or people in a church may choose to leave the church and join another one. But Jesus is the perfect leader who never fails. He knows what he needs. That’s why he came to earth. He came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He fulfilled God’s purposes for humanity. He never failed to love, worship, and obey his Father in heaven. And yet he died on the cross, suffering the wrath of God against sin, because that was the only way for God to be a righteous judge and a merciful Father. Jesus wasn’t afraid to teach hard truths or make hard decisions, even the decision to let himself be killed, to lay down his life so his people could go free. He is the leader of us all, and we must submit to him.
Let us follow Jesus by obeying the word of God, the Bible. That means following leaders of a church. And I ask you to follow me as I follow Jesus.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Robert Ferrell, ed. Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), 310, quoted in Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012), 183. ↑
- Churchill made this statement in a speech in the House of Commons on September 30, 1941, quoted in Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide, 183. ↑
- Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide, 183. ↑
- Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (1997), 130. ↑
- Ibid., 131. ↑
- Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 77. ↑
- Origen, Homilies on Genesis 10.1, quoted in Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 20. ↑
- Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 307. ↑
- Witmer, The Shepherd Leader, 87. ↑
Last week, toward the end of my sermon, I made a comment that I hadn’t written down. It was something that occurred to me in the moment. I said that for some people, hearing a sermon on church government might seem like watching a cooking show. It might seem interesting (or not), but it was like getting some information you would never put to use.
I don’t know how many of you have ever watched cooking shows. They used to have real cooking shows on the Food Network, but now it seems they’re more likely to have strange cooking competitions, where the contests are given odd ingredients and have to make something edible out of them. “Here’s a package of gummi bears, some truffle oil, a head of lettuce, and a can of Spam. Now, do your best to give us a three-course meal.” But before those strange competitions, they used to feature chefs making various dishes that you could recreate if you so desired. I’m sure some people watched those shows to learn new techniques or to see if they could learn a new recipe that they would actually put into practice. But some us would watch those shows simply to be entertained.
I generally don’t cook. Sure, I could cook if I needed to. But I don’t, because I married a woman who likes to cook and does it well. And before we got married I survived on breakfast cereal, fruit, and protein bars and shakes. But even I could be entertained by those cooking shows. I appreciate seeing people who are skilled working on their craft.
Now, here’s my point: There’s a big difference between watching something in order to learn techniques that you will put into practice and watching something to be entertained. If you’re watching something to learn a new skill, you’re trying to get better equipped. Chefs might watch cooking shows. Athletes study video. Musicians listen to recordings. But many of us are accustomed to being entertained. We watch and listen not to learn new skills, but to pass the time, or to be amused or moved or to have a bit of curiosity satisfied.
So, here’s a question for all of us here today: Are we here to learn something that we will put into practice, or are we here to get some kind of spiritual entertainment? Are we here to be equipped, or to feel good about having a spiritual experience, or to do our religious duty? “I’m a righteous person because I went to church today.” If you’re here to become equipped, and even to be led, there’s good news: Jesus has given his church people who lead his flock and equip his saints. But if you’re here out of a sense of duty or to be entertained, I’m not sure I can help you.
Today is a continuation of what I talked about last week. It’s really part two of a longer message on what the Bible says about the leaders of a church. Because of that, I’ll recap last week’s sermon briefly.
Last week, we learned that leaders of a church are called by three terms: overseer, elder, and shepherd. We usually call these people “pastors.” “Pastor” simply comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.” We learned the qualifications for this office: men who are pastors have to have many positive moral characteristics, they must be able to teach, and they must be able to manage their own homes because they are managers over God’s household, the church. We also got a glimpse of what a pastor does: he overseers and leads the church, he teaches “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and he protects the church from false teaching and other things that might he harmful to God’s people.
If you wonder why I keep saying “he,” it’s because two weeks ago we learned that God designed the office of pastors to be filled by men. This doesn’t mean that men are somehow better than women. It just means that God designed men and women differently, and he has chosen to use some men to be pastors. Pastors are no better than other Christians; God has simply given them different spiritual gifts and different roles to play in the church.
Today, I want to continue to think about what a pastor does. A pastor shepherds the congregation, and a pastor helps equip God’s people for ministry.
Let’s first think about what a shepherd does. The theme of shepherding is one that runs through the whole of the Bible. Several important figures in the Bible were shepherds. Abraham, the father of Israel, had sheep (Gen. 12:16; 13:2) and herdsmen who worked for him (Gen. 13:8). His offspring would become the people of Israel. Moses grew up in Egypt, but he fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian; while away, he was a shepherd (Exod. 3:1). Later, Moses would shepherd the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. David was a shepherd, too (1 Sam. 16:11). As the great King of Israel, he would shepherd the nation (2 Sam. 5:2). Most importantly, God is called a shepherd.
Why is this important? Because it says something important about what God’s people need. Think about one of the most famous passages in Scripture, Psalm 23, a Psalm of David:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
Think about all the things that David says the Lord provides for him. He leads him to pastures and waters. In other words, the shepherd provides him with food, with sustenance. He leads him in paths of righteousness. The shepherd leads David through the valley of the shadow of death. He uses two implements, a rod and staff. The rod was used to fend off wild animals. In other words, it would protect the sheep. But the staff was used to discipline and control the sheep, to keep them on the right path. So, shepherds defend and discipline.
This gives us some idea of what pastors do for their “sheep,” their “flock,” the people of their congregation. They provide spiritual food, they lead, they protect, they nudge the sheep in the right direction and provide correction when necessary.
Last week, I read a passage written by the apostle Peter. In his first letter, he writes something to his fellow shepherds, or elders. This is what he writes in 1 Peter 5:1–4:
1 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
Last week, I said that the words overseer, elder, and shepherd all refer to the same office, the same position in the church. This passage shows that. Peter addresses the elders, he tells them to shepherd the flock, and he tells them to exercise oversight. Pastors shouldn’t feel compelled to do this, but they should do their jobs willingly. They shouldn’t do it to get rich, but they should be eager to do the work. They shouldn’t be domineering, commanding people to do what they themselves are unwilling to do. Instead, they should serve as examples to the congregation.
They should do this so that when the chief Shepherd, Jesus, comes, they will be rewarded. This shows that pastors aren’t just shepherds; they’re also sheep who must follow the leadership of the Great Shepherd, Jesus.
We should notice that Peter calls himself a fellow elder. Though he was an apostle, one of Jesus’ first followers and a man who was authorized to lead the early church, he considered himself a pastor. And he learned a great lesson about pastoring from Jesus himself.
Many of us know Peter’s story rather well. On the night when Jesus was arrested, the night before he died, he denied knowing Jesus three times. He did this to save his own life. If people knew he was with Jesus, who was arrested and was on trial, Peter might very well die, too. So, he lied about his relationship to Jesus out of fear.
Yet after Jesus died on the cross, he rose from the grave. And he later appeared to his disciples. In John’s Gospel, we’re told about a special encounter that Peter had with Jesus. This is John 21:15–17:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
This is an interesting passage for a lot of reasons. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Three times, Peter said, “you know that I love you.” These three questions and answers parallel Peter’s three denials, showing that Jesus is fully forgiving Peter.
But what’s interesting is that each time Peter answers, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs,” or, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus could simply mean, “Take care of my people.” But he says “feed” each time. What is Peter supposed to feed the flock? What are all pastors supposed to feed their flock?
It seems the general answer is spiritual nourishment. But that’s kind of vague. More specifically, Christians are to “feed” on Jesus (John 6:51, 53, 55, 58). That’s metaphorical, of course, but the point is that Jesus gives us life. He is the food that strengthens our souls. But how do we know Jesus? Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). And what is Jesus’ voice? How do we hear it? We hear Jesus’ voice in the pages of the Bible. The whole Bible is, one way or another, about him. The whole Bible is God’s written word, and Jesus is the Word of God, truly God himself. So, we can say that the whole Bible is Jesus’ word to us. And Jesus himself said,
“Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4 [Deut. 8:3]).
So, if God’s written word is food that gives us access to God’s incarnate Word, Jesus, and if pastors are supposed to feed the flock that food, then the main way that pastors provide for their congregation is to feed them Scripture. The best way I can help you know God, keep you on the path of righteousness, protect you from false teaching, drive away fears that may surround you as you pass through your personal valleys of the shadow of death, and correct you is to teach you the Bible. That’s why I serve up heaping portions of Scriptural meals each Sunday. A pastor teaches with the Bible, leads with the Bible, protects against false doctrine with the Bible, and corrects with the Bible. The pastor heals the wounded and comforts the hurting with the Bible. You might say that both a pastor’s rod and staff are the Bible. That is why one of the qualifications of a pastor is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9).
Feeding a congregation the spiritual food of the Bible doesn’t mean that unless you hear Scripture read in a church service, you won’t understand it, or that you can’t grow by reading the Bible on your own. But what I’ve found is that many people have a hard time understanding how to read the Bible, how to understand what a passage means in its context. Most people don’t have the ability to teach Scripture. A pastor has been spiritually gifted to have certain insights into spiritual matters. And that gifting should be developed through experience, training, and education. The pastor then preaches and teaches the Word to the congregation, helping them to understand how they can read the Bible and interpret it and apply it to their own lives.
So, a pastor is a shepherd who leads, provides the spiritual food of the Bible, protects the congregation from false teachings, and corrects the congregation when false teaching or sinful practices enter into a church.
The pastor also equips Christians to do ministry. I want to look at another passage, this one from the apostle Paul. It’s found in his letter to church in Ephesus. In Ephesians 4, Paul talks about the unity of the church. To have true unity, the church must grow up, and one of the main ways that the church grows is to become equipped to do ministry. We’re going to zero in on a few verses, but to understand the context, I want us to read verses 1–16 of Ephesians 4:
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
That’s a long passage, but hopefully you understood the main points. Paul begins by saying he wants the church to walk in a manner worthy of the calling they have received. In other words, they’ve been adopted in God’s family through the death of Jesus, which pays the penalty for our rebellion against God. If we trust in Jesus, if we’ve been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, then we’re forgiven of our sins, we’re reconciled to God, and we’re his children. So, Paul says, “Act like you’re God’s children. Be humble and gentle and patient. Bear with one another. Have peace with one another. Just as there is only one true Lord and God, one true faith, one true baptism, there should be one true church, perfectly united.”
Then Paul says in verse 7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The body of Christ, the church, us unified, but within that unity there is diversity. Though every person is made in the image of God, made to reflect God’s glory, made to worship and serve God, made to love and obey God, not all of us have the same abilities and talents. Not all of us have the same spiritual gifts. We call these “spiritual gifts,” because they are gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the triune God, through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These gifts are abilities that should be used to serve the church.
What Paul says here is that Jesus, after ascending to heaven, gave the church certain people to build the church up. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who descended to earth to become a human being in order to fulfill God’s designs for humanity. Unlike us, he lived the perfect human life, always reflecting the glory of God, always obeying and worshiping God, perfectly loving other people. In short, he never sinned. Yet ye died on the cross, not for his own sins, but for the sins of his people. Everyone who puts their faith in Jesus, who trusts that he alone makes us right with God, is forgiven of their sins because Jesus’ death already payed for them on the cross.
But not only did Jesus give his life. After dying, on the third day he rose from the grave. He rose in a body that is indestructible and immortal. His resurrection proved that his death paid for sins in full, that he has power over sin and death. His resurrection is also the first installment of a new creation that God will bring about whenever Jesus returns to earth. After rising from the grave, Jesus ascended to heaven, and he poured out the Holy Spirit on the church. It is the Spirit that enables certain Christians to perform certain roles in the church.
Here, Paul says that Jesus gave the church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” The apostles were people like Paul and Peter, people whom Jesus called to himself and authorized to represent him on earth. These were people who saw Jesus on earth after he rose from the grave. Paul was unique in that he saw visions of Jesus after Jesus ascended to heaven. Prophets were those who revealed truth from God in the first generation or two after Jesus ascended into heaven. I don’t think that we have apostles and prophets today, though there are some Christians who think we do. Earlier in Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). The foundation of the church is biblical truth, revealed by the apostles and prophets. A foundation is only laid once, and there is no new, authoritative “word” from God that equals Scripture. But, certainly, the word of God equips the saints for ministry.
Evangelists are people who are especially gifted to share the message of Jesus. All Christians should be witnesses in one way or the other. But not everyone is going to be particularly good at this. Some people are more outgoing, better able to engage others in spiritual conversations. And these people can help the church do the ministry of evangelism. They can teach us how we all can tell people about how to be reconciled to God through Jesus. But there’s no indication in the rest of Scripture that there is a special office of evangelist in the church. This doesn’t seem to be an official position. But we might think of missionaries as evangelists, people whom the church should support.
That brings us to “the pastors and teachers.” This may refer to one office. In other words, Paul might very well mean “pastors who teach.” The grammar of the Greek is debatable. Perhaps Paul means that pastors equip the church for ministry, and in particular it is those pastors who teach that equip the saints for ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 5:17).
But the important thing we should see is that pastors are given to the church not do all the ministry of the church. No, pastors are given to the church to equip the saints—a word that means someone made holy by Jesus’ sacrifice and by the Holy Spirit—to do the ministry of the church. In other words, all Christians should be engaged in ministry. It’s the pastor’s job to equip Christians to minister.
As you might guess, pastors equip the saints for ministry through teaching the Bible. A pastor should teach about various roles that people play in a church. He should teach about spiritual gifts and help people to understand what their gifts are and how they can be used in the church.
This model of a pastor as equipper is different from the model that most churches have today. Some churches view pastors as the religious services provider. He’s the preacher, the one who does baptisms, weddings, and funerals, the one who visits the sick and offers counseling when people request it. More recently, churches view pastors as CEOs, as managers of a church. He is the leader, the one who manages resources, including people. Now, there are truths to both of these models. Pastors should preach and perform ceremonies and offer counseling. Pastors should lead churches; they are overseers, managers of God’s household. But both of those models suggest that the people in the pews are consumers.
A different model is that the pastor is a trainer, or a coach. We might say he’s a player-coach, the way that Bill Russell was at the end of his career with the Celtics, or that Pete Rose was at the end of his career with the Reds (though without the gambling). These different models were identified by two writers, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, who wrote a book on ministry called The Trellis and the Vine. They suggest the last model, that of trainer, is the most biblical one. According to them, when this model is used, “Our congregations become centres of training where people are trained and taught to be disciples of Christ who, in turn, seek to make other disciples.” The pastor doesn’t only exist to give people spiritual consumers a product. “His task is to teach and train his congregation, by his word and his life, to become disciple-making disciples of Jesus.”
If we all came to church with the desire to be trained for ministry, the church would become more mature, more united. It would better reflect who Jesus is. The pastor is not the one who does all the ministry. One man, or even a few men, can’t do all the ministry of the church. And that’s not God’s design for the church. All Christians should be engaged in the ministry of a local church. I’ll talk more about this in a few weeks when we talk about the role of the congregation in the church and about spiritual gifts.
So, what do we do with this information? Hopefully, we all have a clearer understanding of what a pastor’s role is. I’m sure I could do a much better job of shepherding and equipping you. In particular, I should make sure that I do a better job of training people for ministry.
But I do want to say this to you all: you will get out of church what you put into it. If you are coming on a Sunday morning thinking that church is some kind of product to be consumed, you will be missing out. Church isn’t a product to be consumed. It certainly isn’t entertainment. It shouldn’t be like watching a cooking show and saying, “Oh, so that’s how you make a soufflé!” Are you going to make a soufflé? “No, but I think it’s really interesting to watch other people cook one, and I would like to eat one when they’re done.” That’s not how church should work.
We should approach church as though we’re all players on a team. We all have different roles to play. Not everyone on a baseball team is a pitcher or a catcher. Not everyone will bat leadoff or in the cleanup spot. A football team can only have one starting quarterback, but it has many linemen. You get the idea. But every player is ready to use his or her abilities. And every player should come under the leadership of the coach.
A pastor doesn’t exist to please you. The Bible doesn’t say that pastors are your buddies, people that you like. I don’t know how much sheep like their shepherds or even agree with their shepherds. A pastor isn’t the church’s employee, a guy who exists to do the will of the congregation because, after all, they’re paying his salary. A pastor exists to do God’s will, and he does this by leading the church according to God’s word.
The best way that you can benefit from Jesus’ gift of pastors is to be willing to be led, to be willing to be taught, to be willing to be equipped. If you are not willing, you won’t get much out of church. If you’re not willing to do those things, it may be that you don’t truly know Jesus. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Part of following the Great Shepherd is following the shepherds of his church. He gave them to the church for a reason. Jesus laid down his life for the flock, to purchase them for himself. Regardless of our position in the church, all Christians should pour out their lives for Jesus. This, too, is a gift.
Let us ask God to give us the grace and the strength to do what he has called us to do in the church. Pray that I would be a better shepherd and equipper. And ask God to show you how you can be a better sheep and player on the church team. Let us be willing to listen to Jesus and act on what he has revealed to us in the pages of Scripture.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (Kingsford, NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009), 94ff. ↑
- Ibid., 99. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
Does anyone here receive letters anymore? It seems like most of our correspondence is done through emails, texts, and phone calls. When we go to check our mail, we usually don’t expect letters. We’re prepared to deal with junk mail, advertisements, bills, and perhaps a package. But occasionally we’ll still receive an important letter in the mail.
Last Tuesday was Tax Day, and whether you had filed your taxes in February or at the last minute, you know it’s an important thing to do. And whether you owed the IRS money or received a refund, you hope not to hear back from them. But sometimes we do receive a letter from the IRS, and that will surely get your attention. Last year, I received a letter from the IRS in May which said I owed money. I had received a small refund in April, but my tax preparer neglected to include a form that dealt with the tax credit I received to help pay for health care. I had received too large of an advanced credit and had to pay pack the difference to the government. You can be sure that letter got my attention.
Now, that’s a letter concerning tax obligations to the government. That’s an important thing. We usually pay attention to issues regarding money and possibly getting into trouble with the government. But what if we received an even more important letter?
What if we received a letter from God, telling us how “to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15)? Shouldn’t we pay more attention to that letter? If we are God’s people, shouldn’t we want to know how to behave in his house, the church? Shouldn’t we want to know how God expects his church to operate?
I think the answers to those questions should be, “Yes.” And today we’re going to start to look at such a letter, the book of 1 Timothy.
Today is going to be an introduction to the book. Since we’re going to spend about four months in this book and some related passages in the New Testament, I thought it would be good to help us understand its background. Today may feel more like a lecture than a sermon, though I hope what I say today will inspire us to worship God and to be confident that what we read in the Bible is truly God’s word.
There are three things that I want to address today. First, I want us to know who wrote this letter. Second, I want us to know to whom the letter was written. And then, third, I want us to get a glimpse of what this letter is about.
So, without further ado, let’s start by reading the first two verses of this book. Here is 1 Timothy 1:1–2:
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,
2 To Timothy, my true child in the faith:
Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
These verses clearly state that the letter is from the apostle Paul. So, let’s discuss who Paul was.
A lot of us know something about Paul, but I don’t want to take that knowledge for granted. So, here’s a quick background. Paul was a Jewish man, born sometime around or shortly after Jesus was born. He was born in the city of Tarsus (Acts 9:11; 21:39; 22:3), one of the more significant cities in the Roman Empire and now part of Turkey. He had two names, one Hebrew and the other Latin, so he is sometimes referred to as Saul, and then mostly later as Paul. (His name didn’t change at the time of his conversion.) He was educated in Jerusalem under a rabbi named Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Later, he became a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5), one of the prominent sects of Judaism. Pharisees weren’t the official religious leaders—those were the priests—but they were lay leaders who were experts in the Torah, the law of the Old Testament.
That was Paul’s position at the time when Jesus died and then rose from the grave. And as the Christian movement started to spread in Jerusalem, a man named Stephen was killed. The Jewish people thought that he was blaspheming, speaking against the temple, so they killed him. He was the first Christian martyr. And when that happened, we read this in Acts: “Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). When Stephen died, we read, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).
After Stephen’s death, Saul persecuted other Christians, arresting them and bringing them to prison (Acts 8:3). Paul apparently approved of the deaths of other Christians, casting a vote against them (Acts 26:10–11).
Saul was so against Christianity, surely thinking that this new religious movement was blasphemous, that he even traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus to try to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem, where they would surely die. We read this in Acts 9:1–5:
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
From that time on, Paul’s life was changed. He would then become the greatest of Jesus’ special messengers, his apostles. He traveled throughout the Roman Empire, going to major cities to declare that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the long-awaited King that God promised would come. He declared that Jesus is Lord, the one who lived a perfect life and died on the cross in place of sinners and then rose from the grave.
Paul went from being a zealous persecutor of the church to a zealous church planter. He was so convinced that his message was true that he endured great hardships, including beatings and imprisonments. And he would later die in Rome. The church historian Eusebius says that Paul was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero, who died in the year 68. It is even claimed that Paul and Peter died on the same day. Paul probably wrote 1 Timothy a few years before his death, but after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, which is described in the book of Acts.
So, that is a brief biography of Paul, the man to whom thirteen letters in the New Testament are credited.
But some people don’t believe that Paul wrote all those letters, including 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. Now, I want you to know this not because I believe it. I believe that Paul wrote the letters that bear his name. But it’s common to hear doubts about Paul’s authorship in some prominent places. When you hear a story about the Bible on NPR or read about it in Time magazine, it’s often a story that casts doubt on the truth and authority of the Bible. If you go into a secular bookstore and make your way to the religion section, you might see books by a scholar named Bart Ehrman, who wrote a booked called Forged. Ehrman claims that many of the books in the New Testament were not written by the people we think they were written by.
Now, this is quite a serious claim. Think about what would happen if you got a letter from the IRS claiming that you owed them money. You would want to know if the IRS actually wrote and mailed you that letter, wouldn’t you? Otherwise, it would be a scam. If the books of the Bible were not written by apostles or people who had access to eyewitness testimony, then how could we trust that what they said was true? How could we believe that such letters were God’s word?
Well, Ehrman doesn’t believe the Bible is from God. His whole project is to get people to doubt the claims of Christianity.
But there are some people who are Christians who believe that such books of the Bible like 2 Thessalonians, the so-called “Pastoral Letters” (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), and 2 Peter weren’t written by Paul and Peter. Sometimes other books (Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter) are often on that list. These Christian scholars believe that there was a known practice at the time of some people writing in the name of others. They say that students of a more famous person wrote in the name of their deceased teacher. They say that as long as the content was generally the thoughts of the one whose name is used, and if people understood this practice of writing in another’s name, then it wasn’t deceptive.
What are we to make of these claims? Can we trust that this letter of 1 Timothy was actually written by Paul?
Well, when we hear claims like this, we have to think about evidence. Whenever you hear a claim made about the Bible, such as that it contains contradictions or false statements, you have to ask for the evidence behind these claims. So, what is the evidence that Paul did or didn’t write this letter?
There are two types of evidence that scholars consider. One is called external evidence. That’s the kind of evidence that is outside the actual text of the book. External evidence concerns things like what the earliest writers outside the Bible said about this book. It also deals with what kind of manuscript evidence we have.
The fact is that we don’t have the original copies of any ancient documents. We don’t have video of people writing them. So, we lack the kind of “proof” that many modern people would like to have. But that doesn’t mean we have no evidence. We have copies of the original text and we have the writings of early Christian theologians who make references to the books of the Bible.
As far as 1 Timothy goes, we don’t have anyone in church history doubting that Paul wrote this book until the nineteenth century. Think about that. For almost eighteen hundred years, everyone assumed that Paul wrote this letter. For someone to change their mind about this issue and fly in the face of eighteen hundred years of church history, there should be some pretty strong evidence that Paul didn’t write this book. But there’s no evidence that anyone else wrote this letter, no early document that claims something like, “There’s this letter going around addressed to Timothy, but we all know Paul didn’t write it.” As early as the beginning of the second century, we have Christians quoting from 1 Timothy. Polycarp (69–155) wrote his own Letter to the Philippians at the beginning of the second century. And in one section he seems to quote from 1 Timothy and Ephesians:
“But the love of money is the root of all evils.” Knowing, therefore, that “as we brought nothing into the world, so we can carry nothing out,” let us arm ourselves with the armour of righteousness; and let us teach, first of all, ourselves to walk in the commandments of the Lord.
So, all the external evidence seems to point to the fact that Paul wrote this letter.
The other type of evidence that scholars consider is internal evidence. This refers to the actual text of the document. Some scholars notice that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus use different vocabulary than Paul’s other letters. In addition to different words, there are differences in grammar, syntax, and ways of making an argument (rhetoric). So, these scholars can’t believe that one man would right, say, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans, and also 1 Timothy.
But there may be good reasons why Paul used a different writing style in the Pastoral Letters. One reason may be that he was addressing different concerns. The issues he was dealing with in 1 Timothy were different than the issues in Galatians. Also, Paul was writing to a specific individual (though in a public way, as we’ll see), not to a whole church. Additionally, Paul’s vocabulary might have been affected by learning the Latin language. “Paul could have learned Latin during his first imprisonment in Rome in order to extend his ministry westward” to Spain. Finally, Paul might have used a different secretary to write the letter.
It was common for writers to use an amanuensis, or a secretary. If I asked you who wrote the book of Romans, you would probably say Paul. And you’re not wrong (Rom. 1:1–7). But take a look at Romans 16:22: “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Tertius was the man who actually put pen to paper (or stylus to papyrus, technically). Paul probably dictated the content of the letter. It was possible for secretaries to have some input into the actual wording of the letter. This still happens today. Letters from various authorities are often written by their assistants. The content of the letter and the final format of the letter are approved by their bosses, but the one doing the writing was someone else. That might have been the case in Paul’s last letters, though no person is specifically mentioned. Some think Luke might have been the actual writer of the letters, while Paul was the author, the one dictating the basic content.
At any rate, the point is that there is no good reason to believe the author is anyone but Paul. If it wasn’t Paul, it was someone trying to deceive. Paul says that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” Paul wasn’t Timothy’s biological or even adoptive father, but his spiritual mentor. And if someone other than Paul were writing this, it would be false.
A scholar named Lewis Donelson wrote a book on the issue of falsely attributed letters in ancient Greece and Rome. I don’t think he’s a Christian and he believed that there are pseudonymous letters in the New Testament. But he said this, “No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know a single example.” He later adds, “We are forced to admit that in Christian circles pseudonymity was considered a dishonorable device and, if discovered, the document was rejected and the author, if known, was excoriated.”
So, if this letter wasn’t written by Paul, it’s a forgery, and it should be rejected. But since we don’t have good reasons to believe anyone other than Paul wrote it, we should go along with the vast majority of Christians and accept that it comes from the apostle himself.
And I take time to say all of this because we should be confident that the Bible is the word of God. It’s not something that some deceptive or misguided people concocted. It’s not a fabrication or a forgery. Yet we often hear that the Bible wasn’t written by the people who allegedly wrote it, or that it’s full of errors or contradictions. Don’t buy into those claims. Ask people who make those claims, “What is the evidence? Can you prove that to me?”
The letter was written by Paul to Timothy. And that brings us to the second issue, the letter’s initial audience. Who was Timothy? Timothy was Paul’s younger associate. We first meet Timothy in the Bible in Acts 16. He had a Gentile father and a Jewish-Christian mother. In Acts, we’re told that Timothy was already a disciple, a Christian, when Paul took him on his second missionary journey. It’s likely that he became a Christian because of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14). From the time of his second missionary journey onward, Timothy was either with Paul or represented Paul in places where Paul couldn’t be. Paul said of Timothy, “I have no one like him” (Phil. 2:20). In fact, six of Paul’s letter are said to be from Timothy as well as Paul, though they are obviously authored by Paul (see 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Philem. 1).
So, Timothy was Paul’s coworker. We might say he was an apostolic delegate. And at this time, he was in the city of Ephesus, where Paul had preached years earlier. Paul had spent about two-and-a-half in that city (Acts 19), and even after he left, he met with the elders of the church in Ephesus (Acts 20). Paul obviously had a lot invested in that city. It was a significant one in that part of the Roman Empire, in a province called Asia Minor, in the western part of what is now known as Turkey.
Timothy had the responsibility of making sure the church in Ephesus was in good order. But Paul didn’t write to Timothy only. At the very end of the letter, Paul writes, “Grace be with you” (1 Tim. 6:21). In the original Greek language, the “you” is in the plural. We might say “you all” in English. So, the letter isn’t written to just Timothy. It is written for the whole of the church in Ephesus. The whole church should know what Paul has written.
And that brings us to the final issue we’ll look at today. What is this letter about? Let’s look at 1 Timothy 3:14–16:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, 15 if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. 16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
First, notice that Paul gives the reason why he is writing. He hopes to visit Timothy in Ephesus soon, but he’s writing this letter so that if he can’t get there soon, Timothy will know how people ought to behave in the household of God. The church is the living God’s home. It is a pillar and buttress of truth. If we care about God and about the truth, we’re going to pay careful attention to how the church should operate, and how we should behave in God’s house. (God’s house isn’t this building, it’s a people!) That’s why studying this letter is so important.
Second, notice that Paul presents a short confession of faith. This is probably some kind of statement—whether it was a hymn or a creed—about Jesus that Paul was quoting. Jesus is the God who took on flesh, he is the God-man. His identity and his ministry were vindicated by the Holy Spirit, particularly when he rose from the grave after dying on the cross. Paul doesn’t give us a clear message of Jesus’ death here, but the reason why Jesus died was not because of his sin. He didn’t have any. He was the only perfect person, the only one who ever walked this earth and lived a perfect life. Yet he was treated like a criminal, dying on an instrument of torture and death, so that the penalty for our sin could be paid.
Yet Jesus was vindicated by his resurrection. He had been sealed in a tomb on the first day, the day of his death. But on the third day, he rose from the grave in a body that is immortal and indestructible. His resurrected body is the first installment of something that will come later, the new creation. This old creation has been tainted by sin, our rebellion against God. Everything that we think is wrong with this world, whether fighting between people, natural disasters, our own feelings of depression and anxiety, and even death itself, can be traced back to sin. Worst of all, our sense of being distant from God is the result of human rebellion against him. Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrifice on the cross remove that distance for all who trust in him. We can truly be reconciled to God. Yet we still live a hard life in the old creation. But when Jesus returns to Earth, he will renew it. It will be a day of judgment for those who reject Jesus, but it will be a day of glory for those who trust in him. The best part of Jesus’ return is the resurrection of his people. We who believe in Jesus will have resurrected bodies. And the universe will have its own resurrection. There will be no more famine and flooding, no more weeping and sadness, and no more death.
This confession of faith also says that Jesus was seen by angels, presumably after his resurrection. And he was seen by many human witnesses, too. They proclaimed Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. Paul had a large role to play in that mission. Many Jews and Gentiles came to believe in Jesus. And Jesus was taken up into glory. He ascended to heaven, where he is right now with God the Father. He serves as the high priest of his people, pleading his sacrifice on their behalf, so that their sins are covered. He intercedes for us, praying for us, just as the Holy Spirit intercedes for those who don’t know how to pray.
This is the core of the Christian faith. That is why Paul says in the very first verse of this letter that Jesus is “our hope.”
Part of the reason why Paul wrote this letter to Timothy is because there were false teachers in Ephesus, people who were teaching something contrary to the message that Paul taught. From the beginning, there were false teachers who invaded churches, just as there are false teachers today who pervert and corrupt the message of Christianity. Part of Paul’s concerns in this letter is to make sure that sound doctrine is taught. As we go through this letter, we’ll see that.
I suppose that is why Paul begins this letter by stating that he is “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus.” An apostle is a special envoy or messenger. The apostles were the ones who were commissioned by Jesus to be his messengers, the ones who saw Jesus in the flesh, particularly after his resurrection. These false teachers weren’t apostles, certainly not by the command of God the Father and Christ Jesus, God the Son.
And Paul mentions that Timothy is his “true child in the faith.” The false teachers were not brought up in the faith the way that Timothy was. Timothy was Paul’s true spiritual heir, his true representative. Not everyone who claims to speak for God is God’s messenger or mouthpiece. But Paul was, and so was Timothy.
Finally, this letter is also about the grace, mercy, and peace that come from God. Notice that these things come from both “God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” This shows that Jesus is God. The very word “Lord” indicates that, but the fact that God the Father and Jesus are both the givers of grace, mercy, and peace indicates that they act as one.
The word “grace” refers to the fact that salvation is a gift from God. We are not in the right with God because we are good people, because we’ve earned his favor, or because we’ve followed all the rules. Christianity teaches that it is impossible for us to earn something from God and that it’s impossible for us to be perfect, which is what God’s perfect standards require. But God is generous. He gives us what we don’t deserve. God doesn’t forget our sin, though. He doesn’t just shrug it off or sweep it under the rug. No, God is a perfect judge, and judges don’t ignore the evidence in front of them. But God sent his Son, who came willingly to take on the punishment that our crimes deserve. All of this is a gift.
The word “mercy” can refer to acts of pity. If grace is a gift, something we don’t deserve, mercy is not giving us over to what we do deserve. But the Greek word translated as “mercy” was used to translate a Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is often translated as “steadfast love” in English. The idea is that God is faithful to the covenant he has made with his people, and his love for his people endures even in spite of their sin.
And the word “peace” doesn’t refer to a feeling, but an objective reality. We can be at peace with God because of the work of Jesus on our behalf. This implies that before coming to Jesus, we’re at war with God. We start out life as God’s enemies, ignoring the King of the Universe, and even rebelling against him, acting as though we are little kings and queens. But once we come to Jesus, that war against God is over. We submit to his loving rule, and he does not treat us according to our rebellion.
Even in these three words, we get a sense of the core of Christianity. Yet Christianity doesn’t do away with all rules. God has designed our lives. He is, after all, the Creator of everything, including the church. He knows best how the church should operate. In order to be a church that accurately reflects the God of order, we need to conduct the church according to God’s rules.
To be the church of Christ, we must maintain this confession of faith. We must hang on to the truth that God has revealed to us.
In order to be a church of grace and mercy, we must know the gospel and act according to it.
That’s why this letter matters so much.
If you don’t know what Christianity is about, I invite you to come back. The rest of the sermons in this series won’t be like this one. But we’re going through this letter because it’s important for the church. And you really can’t separate a right relationship with God from a right relationship with a local church. If you want to know more about Jesus and the Bible, I would love to talk to you personally.
For the rest of us, there will be plenty for us to consider, for as we move through 1 Timothy, we’ll find that all of us will be challenged. God’s word has a way of doing that. But it leads us to truth, and when we follow God’s instructions, we find that his commands are not burdensome. Instead, we find grace, mercy, and peace in the household of the living God.
- Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25. ↑
- Bart Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011). ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:10. ↑
- 1 Tim. 6:7. ↑
- Eph. 6:11. ↑
- Polycarp of Smryna, “The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians” 4, in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 34. ↑
- William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), c. ↑
- This is also why, at the end of some of his letters, Paul personally writes a greeting, to verify that the letter is actually his. See 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11. ↑
- Lewis R. Donelson, Pseudepigraphy and Ethical Argument in the Pastoral Epistles, Hermeneutische Untersuchungen zur Theologie 22 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1986), 10. ↑
- Ibid., 16. ↑
- The Greek word is ἔλεος (eleos) and the Hebrew word is חסד (ḥesed). ↑
What standard do we use to determine what is right and wrong? How do we know who God is, how we can be right in his eyes, and how we can live a life pleasing to him? We will either depend on God’s Word or tradition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Mark 7:1-23).
I want us to imagine a hypothetical story, a parable, if you will. Imagine an industrial town somewhere in the Midwest, in the Rust Belt. It’s a town that had a once-thriving industry (let’s say it was making widgets) that has dried up decades ago, kind of like Brockton’s shoe industry. And in this town, there was a boy. This boy wasn’t famous growing up. He didn’t come from a rich family. He wasn’t a star athlete. But he was smart. And he went off to a good college, and then law school, and he then became a lawyer for a firm in another state. Eventually, he became a U.S. Senator in that other state, so he still had family in his hometown. He still had some hometown connections. Eventually he ran for President and he won the election.
At the beginning of his presidency it’s announced that he’s going to return to his hometown to make a speech there. He’s going to make that speech in the old, abandoned widget factory. As you can imagine, the people in his hometown get excited. Pretty soon, there’s talk about how the president’s visit means the town is likely to get a federal grant. Some old factory and mill towns across America have received this grant to renovate and repurpose old factories and mills, so they can be used as apartments, office spaces, and studios. (This has happened in Waltham and Beverly, with the old Waltham Watch and United Shoe buildings, respectively.) Because this president has been talking about the need to put America back to work, and because of his trip to his old hometown, and because of the location of the speech, everyone assumes he is going to announce that this town is going to receive a grant.
The president begins his speech with talk about the old days when people in America worked hard and had good jobs. He talks a bit about the old widget factory. Everyone is waiting for the moment when he gets to that grant. “How much money is the federal government going to spend on us?”, they think. Then the president starts to talk about how Americans are lazy and how workers overseas do better work. He says it’s time for Americans to be tougher, to be more disciplined, to work harder. So, instead of announcing a grant, he talks about how his administration is going to reform entitlement spending, cutting back unemployment benefits and cracking down on Social Security fraud. For the sake of this story, let’s assume what the president says is true, and what he proposes is good.
Imagine the reaction of the people. At first, they were thrilled that the local boy made good was coming to town. They assumed they would receive something good. But then when they hear something they don’t want to hear, they are enraged. They boo the president. Someone starts leading a chant: “Not our president! Not our president!” The Secret Service agents at the event get nervous and they cut things short, escorting the president out of the factory before things turn worse.
Now, why do I tell that story? That’s kind of what happens in the passage that we’re going to look at today. I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Luke over the last two months and today we come to Luke 4:14–30. Here, we see what happens when Jesus teaches in his own hometown of Nazareth.
Before we start, I want to give us a little bit of context. Two weeks ago, we saw that Jesus was baptized and then anointed by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). At that time, God the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” We Christians believe that there is one God, who is triune. In other words, we believe that God is one Being in three Persons. Here, God the Father blesses God the Son, upon whom God the Holy Spirit comes, giving him power. Jesus has always been the Son of God, but over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature, also becoming a human being. And, as a human being, he was given the Holy Spirit to guide and empower him. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the long-awaited King of Israel who will reign forever.
That bit of information is important to know as we look at today’s passage. Let’s start by reading the first two verses, verses 14 and 15:
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
This is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke is giving us a summary statement. Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went to the region of Galilee, where he had grown up. People heard about his teaching in synagogues and he was glorified by them. This probably means that Jesus’ teaching brought him a certain level of fame. The people started to hear about how Jesus was a great teacher and those who heard him marveled at his teaching.
Then, after giving us that statement, Luke tells us about a particular time when Jesus taught in a synagogue.
Before we look at that, I want to make just a brief note on synagogues. Synagogues probably emerged while the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon, over five hundred years earlier. A synagogue was really a gathering of people, not so much a building. In some towns, the people probably gathered in someone’s home. Synagogue meetings usually centered on Scripture readings and teaching. Any qualified Jewish man might be invited to teach. You might remember that in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul was able to testify to Jesus while visiting different synagogues in the Roman Empire (Acts 13:13–43; 14:1; 17:1–3, 10–12, 16–17; 18:1–4, 19; 19:8).
While Jesus was in his hometown synagogue, he was able to read from Scripture and teach. Let’s read the first part of what happens. We’ll read verses 16–22:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but he was raised in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee. “In the time of Jesus, Nazareth was a small agricultural village with a spring and a population of approximately 400 to 500 people.” Such a small town wouldn’t have its own synagogue building. They also probably wouldn’t have had a complete copy of the Hebrew Bible. In that time, Scripture wasn’t printed in one nicely-bound book. Books of the Bible were written on scrolls. So, a scroll is given to Jesus.
Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, and he locates a passage that he wanted the people of synagogue to hear. He reads the first verse of Isaiah 61 and part of the second verse. It appears that Jesus may have skipped a line that’s in verse 1 (“he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”) and added a verse from Isaiah 58:6 (“to set at liberty those who are oppressed”). People used quotations a bit more freely back then. What’s important is that Jesus chose this passage for a purpose.
Toward the end of his book, the prophet Isaiah speaks of a servant upon whom God will put the Holy Spirit. This servant will bring forth justice (Isa. 42:1, 3). He will be a “light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; Luke 2:32). His mission was “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:7). Most importantly, this servant would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). In other words, he would die for the sins of his people. And “with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Though this servant never sinned (Isa. 53:9), he died in place of our sins. He would “make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11).
So, Isaiah promises a time of comfort and salvation, of rescue for the hurting and the oppressed. Isaiah also contains a description of a new creation, where there will be no more crying (Isa. 65:17–19) and no more death (Isa. 25:6–9).
The passage that Jesus read recalls those good promises. It’s therefore understandable that after he read it, the crowd was waiting for him to say something. That’s why “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They were waiting for Jesus to tell them something about that passage. Perhaps they were wondering when the “good news” that Isaiah promised would come.
Jesus probably said more than Luke reports, but we’re given only one sentence: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I’m sure the crowd didn’t fully understand what Jesus meant. Perhaps they thought Jesus was telling them that someone else would bring this liberty, this freedom, the Lord’s favor. But what Jesus meant was that he is the one who has been anointed by the Holy Spirit. He is the one who proclaims the gospel, which means “good news.” But more than that, Jesus is the one who brings about liberty and healing. He is the one who fulfills the great promises of the Old Testament. When you stop and think about it, his claims are amazing. He is the one who will make everything right in this broken world.
It’s not clear how much the crowd understood, but they liked what they heard. Luke says, “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.” Jesus spoke a message of grace. The liberation and healing that he said had been fulfilled was not something that God owed to anyone. We aren’t entitled to freedom and good health. But God gives us salvation through his Son. That is why salvation is by grace alone. It is not something we deserve or can earn. The crowd probably wasn’t thinking of salvation the way that you and I think of it. They might have thought of physical healing of blind people and others who had disabilities. They might have thought about being delivered from the oppression of the Roman Empire, which occupied their land. But whatever they understood, they were impressed by Jesus.
Then they say, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” It’s not clear what they mean. It is usually understood to mean that they are doubting whether Jesus could be the fulfillment of the passage of Scripture he read. They liked the idea that the promised liberation and healing had come, but then they thought about it and said, “Wait a minute, Jesus is Joseph’s son. Maybe he’s wrong?” Or perhaps they realized that Jesus was claiming to the be God’s agent of salvation, and they thought, “Hey, how could Joey Carpenter’s son be the Messiah? I mean, have you seen Joey’s work? I could make better tables than that guy!” In other words, they’re doubting that a small-town guy could be the key to making everything right in the world.
That may be what they thought, but there’s another way of reading their question. When they ask, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they may have been thinking something like, “Wait a minute, if Jesus has something to do with this liberation, this year of the Lord’s favor, this healing, and if he’s Joey Carpenter’s son, then that’s good news for us. Jesus is from Nazareth. If he can bring God’s favor to Israel, how much more are we going to receive all these good things? We’re definitely in!” They’re like the people in that story I used at the beginning of the sermon. The hometown folks thought the president, a hometown hero, would bring home the bacon. Little did they know they were going to be grilled.
The people in this synagogue in Nazareth might have thought that Jesus would bring them special favor. After all, Jesus’ message, which is Isaiah’s message, sounded a lot like the year of Jubilee, which was supposed to occur every fifty years. Leviticus 25:10 says, “you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan.” Nazareth was a poor town. They might have thought that Jesus was promising them that they could be released from their debts and poverty.
Either reading is possible, and either reading makes sense of what Jesus says next. Let’s read verses 23–27:
23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Depending on whether we think these people are skeptical or hopeful, the proverb “Physician, heal yourself” could mean one of two things. If they were skeptical, they might be saying, “Prove it to us!” If someone who was obese and sounded like he smoked five packs a day claimed to be a doctor, you might say, “If you’re a physician, heal yourself.” That could be why the people wanted Jesus to perform the miracles they heard he performed in Capernaum. In other words, they might not have believed that Jesus was the Messiah, or Christ. They might have wanted to see signs and wonders that authenticated his message.
But if they were hopeful that Jesus would first bring good things to his hometown, that same proverb could mean, “If you’re a good doctor, you make sure that you and your family are particularly healthy.” They might have been pleading for special favors. “Jesus, you’re one of us. Why are doing those miracles in Capernaum? Take care of your own first.”
Either way, Jesus won’t have it. He won’t give to those who reject him, and he can’t be manipulated. So, he says, “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” That could be true because people don’t believe a regular “Joey from the block” could be a prophet. Or it could be true because people think that their homeboys shouldn’t say hard things, which the prophets often spoke.
Jesus then reminds the crowd of what happened in the Old Testament. Some eight hundred years earlier, there were two prophets in Israel, Elijah and Elisha. They were called to turn Israel back to God and away from worshiping false gods. They served during a time when Israel was led by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, both infamous for being wicked rulers. During Elijah’s day, there was a great famine in Israel. That famine was a judgment on Israel’s idolatry. Jesus reminds the crowd that Elijah didn’t go to any widows in Israel during that time, even though there were many in Israel. No, Elijah was sent out of Israel to the coastlands, to Gentile territory. In Zarephath, which was between Tyre and Sidon, he miraculously provided flour and oil for a widow and he raised her son back to life (1 Kgs. 17:8–24).
Elisha, Elijah’s successor, healed and cleansed Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army (2 Kgs. 5:1–14). Syria was Israel’s enemy. Though there were many lepers in Elisha’s day, he only healed Naaman.
Jesus’ point is that Gentiles often exhibited more faith when they encountered God’s prophets than the Israelites did. The Israelites often didn’t listen to the prophets. The prophets said hard truths. They said, “You’ve turned away from God. You’re worshiping fake gods and you’re doing wrong. Turn back to God.” The people didn’t want to change, so they rejected the prophets. And because of the people’s continual rejection of God, they were not healed. But God healed Gentiles, at least those who showed some glimmer of faith.
The hint is that just because these people are from Jesus’ hometown, and just because they are Jews, doesn’t mean they will automatically receive God’s favor. God will not be manipulated. He wants people to love, trust, and obey him. And if people continually reject him, he will give his favor to others.
So, how will the people respond? They seemed to like what Jesus said at first. Will they like what Jesus says now? Let’s see by reading verses 28–30:
28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away.
The people obviously didn’t like what they heard. They understood what Jesus was getting at. He was hinting that if they didn’t respond rightly to him, they would be like the sinful Israelites of Elijah’s day. But more than that, they probably hated the notion that Gentiles would receive God’s favor. The Jews thought of themselves as God’s treasured possession. They thought they were automatically part of God’s kingdom. They assumed that just because of their biological heritage, they would receive God’s blessings.
But God doesn’t work that way. He calls a people to himself, and these people will come from all nations, tribes, and tongues (Rev. 5:9). There are no people who automatically receive God’s blessings and favor. There are no people who are born into God’s kingdom. No, we must be changed by God. We must be born again (John 3:1–8). We must turn from sinning and making created things our functional gods, and we must turn in faith to the one true God.
But these people didn’t care about all of that. All they knew was that Jesus was saying something they didn’t to hear. And their marvel turned to rage. They were so filled with wrath that they tried to kill Jesus. And, somehow, he escaped from them because it wasn’t yet his time to die.
Before we think about how this passage applies to us, I just want to point out what this passage says about human nature. The passage starts with Jesus being allowed to teach in a synagogue. The crowd had heard about his teaching in other places and they had some respect for him. When he read Scripture and said it was fulfilled, the people at first had a positive reaction. But then when Jesus said something they didn’t like, they flipped. This is not what rational people do. But when people hear things they don’t like, even if they’re true, they often act in irrational ways. I think that’s particularly true when it comes to religion. It’s probably because we’re talking about deep, ultimate matters and we’re talking about cherished traditions and beliefs. I have heard stories about people in churches acting in the most ugly ways when they don’t get they’re way. And I’ve seen some of this myself. I suppose this affirms what the Bible says about sin. The power of sin and evil is irrational. When we turn from God, our minds and our hearts are darkened and we can’t think and desire and act rightly.
That’s important to know, because today people tend to think that if they are hurt or feel offended—if they hear something they don’t want to hear—that they are in the right and the one who has spoken, hurt, and offended is wrong. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the truth hurts. That doesn’t mean telling the truth is wrong.
This episode demonstrates how the truth can create opposition. It shows how we all can resist the truth and become enraged by it. One of the reasons I’m a Christian is because the Bible makes so much sense of the human condition. It’s like holding a mirror up to our world and seeing just how beautiful and also how broken it can be.
Well, now that we’ve gone through this passage, what should we do? How does it apply to us?
First, we should know who Jesus is. According to this passage, Jesus is a teacher, a prophet, and the anointed servant of Isaiah. It’s important to see that while Luke emphasizes Jesus’ teaching, he’s much more than a teacher. He’s the one who makes his teaching possible. He’s not just the one who announces the year of the Lord’s favor, but he is able to bring about freedom, healing, and restoration. In other words, he is more than just a man. He is also God. And he’s our Savior.
We also see that Jesus was a controversial figure. People didn’t always respond to him favorably. After Jesus was born, a man named Simeon told Jesus’ mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . , so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Jesus revealed the secret thoughts of these people in Nazareth, and their rejection of Jesus would cause their own fall.
Jesus was also a man who knew what it was like to be rejected, to be hated. People wanted to kill him. Eventually, they did. Truly, Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus was hated because he told the truth. If you tell the truth, there may be people who turn on you. If you share the gospel with someone, people might at first like the idea of Jesus paying for their sins. But if you say that Jesus is the only Savior, and that if people don’t trust Jesus and follow him, they will go to hell, don’t be surprised if people get angry at you. They first got angry at Jesus.
Second, we should know what Jesus came to do. In part, Jesus came to teach and to proclaim a message of good news. However, there is some debate about what Jesus meant when he said he came
to proclaim good news to the poor. . . .
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Some people take this quite literally. They believe that Jesus came to relieve the poor, to give freedom to the oppressed, and to heal those who are disabled. And some people think that since that was Jesus’ mission, that should be the primary mission of the church.
If we’re going to understand Jesus’ mission during his first coming, and if we’re going to understand the mission of the church, we have to think more carefully. First, we should realize that Jesus didn’t free everyone in Israel from poverty. Yes, he miraculously fed thousands of people on a couple of occasions, but that didn’t solve the problem of poverty. Second, we should realize that he didn’t come to heal all disabilities. Yes, he healed at least a couple of blind people (for example, Luke 18:35–43), but he didn’t solve the problem of blindness. Third, he didn’t literally set prisoners free. There’s no account of Jesus leading a jailbreak or bailing someone out of prison. Fourth, Jesus didn’t lead a political revolution “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
So, what does this passage mean? I think the best way to understand it is to see that it refers to spiritual realities. Jesus came to proclaim good news to the poor in spirit, those who realize that they are sinners and can’t save themselves. In order to be reconciled to God, you first need to know how much you’ve been a rebel against him and how much you must rely on his grace, the way a beggar relies on people to give him a handout. Jesus came to proclaim liberty to those who had been held captive by the power of sin. That power enslaves us, leading us to do things we know are not right. Jesus came to give us spiritual sight, so that we can see the truth. Those who can’t see who Jesus truly is remain spiritually blinded. Jesus came to bring freedom to those oppressed by Satan, the devil (Luke 13:16).
The fact that Jesus came to deliver people from spiritual poverty and oppression doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about the physical needs of others. We should. God cares about our bodies, our hunger, and our circumstances. If we’re going to care about other people, we should care about those things, too. But if we care about relieving suffering, we should first care about relieving eternal suffering. It would do no good to help someone out of poverty in this life only. What we all need most is to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven for our sins, and to be united to Jesus, the only Savior. Christians should care about both poverty and souls.
And, when you think about it, the gospel is truly good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. To the poor, it says, “You won’t always be poor. In eternity, you will never lack for anything.” To the slaves and the prisoners, it says, “You are in chains or behind bars now, but that won’t always be the case. Hang on. Freedom is coming in the new creation.” To the blind or the disabled, it says, “You will receive a resurrected body in eternity. Then, you will be able to see. You will be able to walk and run. Your body will be perfectly healthy, and it will never die.” The gospel has given many people in dire circumstances great hope. God has not promised to relieve all pain and suffering in this life, even for his children. But he has promised that the pain and suffering of his children is temporary.
Third, we should respond rightly to Jesus. What’s interesting is that Jesus stops his quote of Isaiah 61 at “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The next line in Isaiah is “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isa. 61:2). The first time that Jesus came, he did not come to bring a day of vengeance, but a day of salvation. However, we only have so long to respond to Jesus. After we die, there will be judgment (Heb. 9:27). When Jesus comes a second time, everyone who has ever lived will be judged. Those who hate Jesus or who are apathetic to Jesus will be condemned. They will be cast out of God’s creation. They will experience eternal torment. The same is true of those who try to manipulate Jesus to their own ends, those who demand that Jesus provide all kinds of signs for them. But those who trust Jesus, who realize their own spiritual poverty, who sense that they have been imprisoned by sin and oppressed by evil forces, who have realized they were blind to the truth—those people will be saved. They will live with Jesus forever in a restored, renewed, perfected world. They will experience endless years of the Lord’s favor.
If you are not trusting in Jesus today, I would urge you to put your faith in him. I would love to talk with you about what that would look like in your life.
Let us see that Jesus proclaimed good news and that he made that good news possible. Let’s turn to him in faith. And let’s bring good news to the physically and spiritually poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Lamoine F. Devries, “Nazareth,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 4: 240. ↑
The first episode of Jesus’ public ministry that we find in Luke’s Gospel is an account of him teaching in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth. Jesus’ message ultimately produces a hostile reaction. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 4:14-30.
“Sin and “temptation” are very religious words. We hear them in church. We read them in the Bible and in Christian books. But outside of religious circles, we don’t hear those words a lot. When we do hear them, they are used in trivial ways. People may talk about “sinfully decadent” desserts. “Oh, that chocolate cake was sinfully decadent.” And people often talk of temptation only in the context of diets. “I’ve been on a diet since the start of the year, but I was really tempted by that sinfully decadent cake.”
In general, our culture doesn’t have a serious view of sin and temptation.
But every once in a while, we all see sin for what it is. Over the last several months, many victims of sexual abuse have been coming forward. And there has been a great outrage in the public. Those who have been accused are ostracized, cast out of society. It’s like a witch hunt, and people seem to demand that the abusers be burned at the stake, even without trials. In all of this, we see the devastating power of sin. Sin hurts all of us. It affects all of life. It corrupts that which God originally made good. The victims of sexual abuse clearly carry the scars of the sins of others. But the fact is that all of us carry scars from sin—our sin, the sins of others, and the corruption that has entered into a fallen world because of sin of the first human beings.
While many people are pointing out the sins of sexual abusers, very few people talk about the underlying factors and causes that lead certain people to commit sexual abuse. And fewer people still talk about what kind of society would help people deal with sexual temptation. Because we all have sinful natures, many of us will experience sexual temptation. Some of us will feel very strong urges to do things that are against God’s design for sex. How do we deal with these temptations?
That question should lead us to think about the problem of sin and the answer to that problem. Sin is ultimately a rebellion against God. No, not all of us have committed sexual abuse. But we have all failed to live for God. We have all done wrong. We’ve ignored the very reason we live, move, and have our being. We were made in God’s image and likeness, which means that we were meant to reflect God’s glory, to represent him, to worship him, to love him, and to obey him. And we don’t do that, at least not all the time. And if we’re being honest, we all feel the pull to do things that are wrong, things that are selfish, things that are destructive.
What is the answer to this problem? Well, the good old Sunday school answer remains the same: “Jesus!” Jesus is the answer to our sin. As I said last week, Jesus is our champion. He wins the battles that we can’t win, the battles that we have lost. We have all been tempted, and we have given into temptation. Jesus, as the true Son of God and the true image of God, never sinned, even though he was tempted. Part of his mission was to resist temptation and to defeat the Tempter, the devil.
Today, we’re going to look at Luke 4:1–13. Last week, we saw that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Right after being baptized, while Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit came upon him and God the Father announced that Jesus is his beloved Son. After that episode, Luke presents to us a genealogy that moves in reverse order, connecting Jesus to the first man, Adam. Adam is called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), but Adam wasn’t a perfect son, because he failed to obey God. A perfectly loving son would perfectly obey a perfect Father. Adam failed. After Adam had failed, God created a people out of an old man, Abraham, and his once-barren wife, Sarah. And when Israel had multiplied in Egypt, they were called God’s “son” (Exod. 4:22). Yet Israel repeatedly sinned.
God wants to relate to a people. God makes covenants with these people. Covenants are like binding pacts, treaties, if you will. They include promises but also establish expectations. All the covenant partners of the Old Testament failed: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, King David. Jesus comes to be the perfect covenant partner, the perfect human being who fulfills God’s plans and expectations for mankind. That’s why Jesus’ obedience matters so much.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s read through today’s passage. After we read the passage, I’ll make a few points about what we see in this passage, and then I’ll discuss several ways that it applies to our lives. Here is Luke 4:1–13:
1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I want to make several observations about what we see in this passage. First, we see that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and he is led by the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is exactly where God wants him. Of course, Jesus is divine. He is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God, with an eternal, divine nature. But over two thousand years ago he added a second nature, a human nature. And he lived his life on earth primarily as a man. Much of Jesus’ strength in his ministry comes from the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, this scene takes place in the wilderness. And he was there for forty days, while fasting. All of that reminds us of Israel. During the time of Moses, the Israelites were enslaved under the Pharaoh in Egypt. God rescued them out of slavery through many miracles, including the ten plagues, the last of which was the Passover. He led them through the Red Sea and to Mount Sinai, where he gave them his law, including the Ten Commandments, and he made a covenant with them. And then he led them through the wilderness for forty years (Num. 14:33; 32:13). Forty days also reminds us of the time when Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law (Exod. 24:18). Like Jesus, Israel was also led by the Holy Spirit (Neh. 9:20; Isa. 63:11.) Their time in the wilderness was a time of testing (Deut. 8:2). And they failed that test, repeatedly sinning.
Third, Jesus was fasting for forty days, just as the prophets Moses and Elijah had done (Exod. 34:28; 1 Kgs. 19:8). This is apparently as long as a human can possibly fast. Fasting is often associated with having a special focus on God, relying on his strength and provision in the place of food. Jesus is clearly relying on God throughout this whole passage.
Fourth, Jesus was tempted by the devil, Satan. This tempting apparently lasted the entire time of the forty days. It’s likely that the three temptations we see here were either representative of Satan’s temptations or they were the final temptations Jesus faced, after he had been fasting for about forty days.
The word “devil” is based on a Greek word (διάβολος) that means “slanderer.” And the word “Satan” is based on a Hebrew word (שָׂטָן) that means “adversary.” That tells us a lot about who the devil is. Luke hardly explains who the devil is. And, really, he’s not mentioned a lot in the Old Testament. But there are a few important times when he appears. We know from the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, that Satan is the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Rev. 12:9). He got them to doubt God’s goodness. Quite famously, he questioned whether God had actually given a commandment. He said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of the any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve said that yes, God had given that commandment and that if they disobeyed, they would die, Satan said, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:2–4). And he led Eve to believe that God had given this commandment in order to keep them from having their eyes opened and becoming like God (Gen. 3:5). Adam and Eve gave into this temptation and ate the forbidden fruit. They trusted Satan’s words more than they trusted God’s. And because of that, the world came under a curse and they were kicked out of the garden, a paradise, and into the wilderness.
Satan also appears in the book of Job, which I preached through last year. There, Satan appears as an angel in heaven. He seems intent on showing that Job, a righteous man, worshiped God only because God had given Job a good life, including wealth and a large family. God allowed Satan to take that wealth, that family, and even good health away from Job. But Satan was wrong. Job didn’t curse God. Job wrestled with God in his suffering, but he never lost his faith.
We also see Satan in a vision in the book of Zechariah. In Zechariah 3, Satan appears as an accuser. He points out the sin of the high priest, Joshua. Yet God removes Joshua’s filthy garments and replaces them with pure, clean clothing (Zech. 3:1–5). Though Joshua was a sinner, God made him clean.
And we’re told that Satan “incited” King David to make a census, in order to number the people of Israel (1 Chron. 21:1). It seems that Satan caused David to trust in numbers and to become proud, instead of relying on God and his power.
So, what does Satan do? He tempts. He lies. He wants to create a division between God and his people. He accuses God’s people, delighting to point out their sin. It seems Satan wanted nothing more than to derail Jesus’ mission, to get him to doubt God and his goodness and to get him to follow him instead of the words of his Father in heaven.
Fifth, Satan tempts Jesus. He begins with these words, “If you are the Son of God.” It’s almost as if Satan is trying to create doubt in Jesus’ mind. This reminds me of Satan’s words to Eve: “Did God really say . . . ?” Jesus knows he’s the Son of God. God told him so (Luke 3:22). But here he is, in the wilderness, being harassed by Satan and he’s also very, very hungry. Perhaps Satan was trying to get Jesus to question the goodness of his own Father. At any rate, Satan tells Jesus to turn stone into bread so he can eat.
It’s important to note this about Jesus and his temptations. Jesus’ temptations are unique. Most of us are tempted by bad desires within us. But that’s not true of Jesus. Jesus, even as a man, did not have a fallen, sinful nature. But we do. James, Jesus’ brother, writes this in his letter:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13–15).
Jesus wasn’t tempted by anything bad within himself. It’s no sin to eat when you’re hungry. But Jesus would have been using his supernatural powers to serve his own will, not the Father’s, and he would have been doubting his Father’s love and provision for him, the way the Israelites doubted God in the wilderness. Jesus said, in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” His mission was to fulfill his Father’s will, not his own. So, he answers Satan with Scripture, quoting a passage from Israel’s wilderness wanderings. He uses Deuteronomy 8:3. He says, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”The Scriptures, God’s Word, were his food. In John 4:34, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Jesus trusted God so much that he knew God would get him through this period of fasting. He didn’t need to listen to Satan. He trusted his Father and his Father’s words.
Satan’s second temptation begins in verse 5. He somehow shows Jesus all the kingdoms in the world, probably in some kind of vision, and he says that all of these can belong to Jesus if only he will do one thing: worship the devil. That sounds like a bad hard rock song, but Satan would love to have Jesus worship anyone or anything other than God the Father.
I don’t know that Satan was telling the truth here. Yes, Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). I suppose that’s because the “world” often means the whole system of sinful humanity that is opposed to God. But God is the true ruler of the world. It’s his world (Ps. 24:1). Satan can only have power because God allows it, for mysterious purposes that somehow bring about his plans. Satan often tells half-truths. He told some half-truths to Eve. He said that when she ate the forbidden fruit, she wouldn’t die. It’s true she didn’t physically die that very day. But Adam and Eve’s sin did lead to death. At any rate, it seems like Satan is probably overselling here. He’s offering Jesus authority and glory, which is something that only God can give.
In fact, Daniel prophesied that the “Ancient of Days” (God the Father) would give “dominion and glory and a kingdom” to the “Son of Man,” Jesus (Dan. 7:14). But before Jesus receives that power, he must first suffer. Satan offers Jesus a path to glory without suffering. He’s offering Jesus a kingdom without a cross. Jesus didn’t come the first time to be a political ruler. He didn’t come to be rich and famous. He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). And he saves by identifying with sinful human beings, by living in a world of violence and pain, and by suffering on the cross, dying a criminal’s death to save sinners. Without that suffering, there is no salvation. Without that suffering, we couldn’t be reconciled to God and forgiven of our sins. Without that suffering, Jesus couldn’t be a King, because in the end he wouldn’t have any subjects. All sinners would be condemned, and there would be no one to dwell with Jesus forever.
Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, once tried to persuade Jesus not to suffer and die. And how did Jesus respond? He said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Jesus knew he came to die in the place of sinners, and nothing could stop him.
That’s why Jesus responds to Satan, again using a passage from Deuteronomy. This time he quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 and says, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Only God deserves worship. If we worship anything other than God, we’re sinning. How many people will get more excited about the Super Bowl next Sunday than about church? When we put our love, our hope, our money, and our emotions into anything more than worshiping God, that reveals our true object of worship. Whatever we love, trust, and obey the most is our god. If we look to anything other than God to find our ultimate security, meaning, acceptance, happiness, and identity, we’re worshiping a false god, an idol. We have all done this in some way or another, even if we don’t think of it as worship. But Jesus never failed to love, obey, and worship his Father in heaven.
The third temptation that Satan offers to Jesus begins in verse 9. We’re told he brought him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. This was probably on the southeast corner of the temple complex, high above the Kidron Valley below. From the top of the temple to the bottom of the valley was about 450 feet. This time, Satan wants Jesus to test God. Again, the idea is that God’s Son shouldn’t suffer. So, once again, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God . . .” And this time, Satan quotes Scripture. He uses Psalm 91:11–12, which promises that God will deliver his people through angels. In fact, the whole Psalm promises deliverance. The fact that Satan quotes this Psalm shows that even Satan knows Scripture. He probably has more head knowledge about God than we do. According to John Piper, “Indeed the devil thinks more true thoughts about God in one day than a saint does in a lifetime, and God is not honored by it. The problem with the devil is not his theology, but his desires.” False teachers often use Scripture today, but they use only bits of it, and often out of context. If you take something out of context, you can make it say almost anything you want. But while God does promise deliverance in the Bible, it doesn’t mean it will come automatically. The Bible promises ultimate deliverance. When Jesus returns, there will be a final day of judgment and salvation, and God’s people will be delivered from sin, death, and a corrupt world. They will live in paradise forever with God. But before then, God’s people will get sick and die. They will feel pain and sorrow and suffering.
Jesus knew that his path would include suffering. It’s no sin not to want to be hurt. But Jesus knew that the kind of stunt Satan was asking him to perform wasn’t really a sign of trust in God. It was testing God. If we really trust God, we don’t need him to show us he cares for us by providing miracles for us. It would be like one of us saying, “God, if you really are a God who saves, catch me after I jump off this bridge.” If you need that kind of sign from God, you don’t have faith, you have doubt. Jesus knew this. So, once again, he quoted Scripture, this time using Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Here’s the sixth observation I want to make about this passage before we move on to thinking about how it applies to our lives. When Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations, the devil leaves. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan!” (Matt. 4:10). Here, we’re simply told Satan departed. But then we’re given an ominous note: “he departed from him until an opportune time.” Though Satan knew he couldn’t tempt Jesus, he wasn’t finished. In fact, I think you can make a good argument that he carried on his work through the various Jewish religious authorities who came to Jesus in order to test him and trap him (for example, see Luke 10:25; 11:16). People who didn’t believe Jesus was indeed the Son of God falsely accused him. They did the work of Satan by telling lies against him.
Later, Satan would influence one of Jesus’ followers to betray him. Luke says that “Satan entered into Judas,” who arranged to have Jesus arrested away from the crowds (Luke 22:3–6). And when Jesus was being crucified, people who passed by mocked him, echoing Satan’s words, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40).
And though Jesus’ temptations at this time came to an end, he wasn’t done being tempted. On the night before he died, he was tempted in a garden, just like Adam. This time, he was tempted about food. No, he was tempted not to face God’s wrath against sin. Again, it’s no sin not to want to suffer and die. And it’s no sin to not want to feel the absence of God’s love. Jesus had experienced unbroken fellowship with God the Father forever, and now he was facing the possibility of experiencing his Father’s wrath. This was the Son of God’s plan, too, but it’s one thing to know a plan in advance; it’s quite another thing to experience something in the present. So, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Jesus was in agony. Luke says, “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Yet Jesus loved the Father so much he did his will. He said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ divine will caused him to want to die for sinners. Jesus’ human will didn’t want to suffer such wrath, but he loved the Father so much he was willing to submit to the Father’s plan.
Even though Satan tried to stop Jesus, he couldn’t. Nothing could stop Jesus from succeeding where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where you and I fail.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives. How should we respond to this passage?
The first thing we should do is to be thankful that Jesus is our champion. We should again be thankful that God sent his only, beloved Son into the world to save us from sin, to do what we don’t and can’t do. In this case, he successfully resisted temptation. Like I said last week, we don’t just want to think of Jesus as an example. Yes, he’s an example. But he’s more than that. He fights the ultimate war of sin and death against Satan for those who trust in him. If you are united to Jesus because you have faith in him, he has resisted temptation for you, and he has won.
Second, if you don’t know Jesus personally as your Lord and Savior, the time to trust in his victory is now. We must admit that we have all given in to temptation. We have all failed to do what is right. We have failed to put God first in our lives, and that’s why we exist. Jesus came to save failures from sin and condemnation. But in order to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven, you must first acknowledge your failure. And then you must turn to Jesus.
Third, Jesus is an example of how to fight against temptation. How did he do that? He used things that are available to all of us. He was led by the Holy Spirit. If you’re truly a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. Don’t forget that. Ask God to give you the strength to resist temptation.
The greatest tool that Jesus used to resist temptation was Scripture. He used God’s word to turn back Satan. In fact, Jesus’ greatest representative, the apostle Paul, calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). It’s a weapon. When we’re under pressure, considering whether to do the right thing or not, we can think back to what is true. But we can only use that tool if we’ve been training to use it. You can’t use God’s word if you don’t know it. Jesus spent years learning and memorizing Scripture. Remember that passage in chapter 2 of Luke that describes the 12-year-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, listening to and questioning the teachers (Luke 2:41–52)? I suppose Luke gave us that story in part to show that Jesus spent his time as a youth learning the Bible. Yes, in his divine nature he knows everything, including the content of the Bible. But, strange as it may seem, he lived primarily as a man, setting aside his divine powers and using his human nature. So, in his human nature, he had to learn. And he learned Scripture.
Do we know Scripture that way? Can we think about what God says about sex and money and honesty when we’re tempted to cheat, steal, and gratify our urges? Part of why we should read the Bible multiple times is to drill God’s word into our minds and hearts, so that we’re trained to live righteous lives.
Also, Jesus simply obeyed. Not only did he have the Spirit and the Scriptures, but he had a heart to obey God. Obedience comes not out of duty, but out of love. If we love and trust God, we will want to obey him. We will know that his word is true and that his commands are for our benefit. If we love God, we will want to obey. We will want to know his word.
Here’s a fourth, related point. Learning to live righteously and to resist temptation takes training. Jesus began his public ministry after he turned thirty. He might have been about 32 or 33 years old. He needed time to learn, time to practice living rightly and resisting smaller temptations before taking on Satan in the wilderness. Resisting temptation takes training. We begin to learn how to resist temptations by starting with small things.
In his great book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,
Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.
If Jesus has fought the war against sin for us, that doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in a battle, a battle that we must fight. And each choice we make is a small tactical maneuver that will help us win or lose that battle. Each choice matters. We need to make the right choices in little things in order to condition our moral reflexes to do the right thing.
This past week, I watched a video that’s part of a new series about Tom Brady. It’s only available on Facebook, and the series is called Tom vs. Time. In that first episode, Brady says, “What are you willing to do and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be? You only have so much energy, and the clock’s ticking on all of us. And when you say yes to something, it means you gotta say no to something else.” He then says his life is focused around football. If you’re a Christian, your life should be focused on God and you should desire to be the best Christian you can be. If you say yes to Jesus, that means you say no to a lot of other things. You may be tempted to stay home on a Sunday morning. But the Bible says that forsaking worship together is a sin (Heb. 10:24–25). We may be tempted to watch television and not read the Bible and pray, but God tells us that our food is God’s word (Deut. 8:3). Start training with the small things and you’ll be ready to fight the battle.
Fifth, and this is just an observation, Jesus was tempted because he was doing God’s will. He was where God wanted him to be, doing what God wanted him to do. Satan doesn’t bother tempting those who are doing a fine job of sinning. A lot of people are already happy to give in to temptation. They don’t need his “help.” Satan attacks us hardest when we’re doing what God wants us to do. So, don’t be surprised to come under Satan’s attacks when you’re actually obeying. Satan doesn’t want you to follow Jesus. He can’t separate you from Christ, but he’ll do what he can to hurt you and confuse you.
Sixth and finally, we don’t want to be part of Satan’s attacks. Satan lies, often dealing with half-truths. He is “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). He tempts. We shouldn’t be part of telling lies, or even half-truths. Someone once said that when a half-truth is presented as a whole truth, it’s not the truth at all. We shouldn’t accuse each other, pointing fingers. We shouldn’t tempt each other. Now, I want to be very clear. There may be a temptation right now in this church to talk about things you don’t really know about. There may be a temptation to think you know what happened when you don’t. There may be a temptation to gossip, to jump to conclusions, to imagine things that aren’t true. Don’t do it. If you don’t know the whole truth about something, it’s best not to talk about it. And tell others not to. We want to fight against Satan, not be his instruments.
Let us thank Jesus for fighting against temptation for us. Let us thank him for dying on the cross to pay for our sins. Let us trust that victory on our behalf. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Jesus, resisting the devil by the power of the Spirit and by using God’s word. And let’s help each other fight that battle.
- Alan D. Lieberson, “How Long Can a Person Survive without Food?” Scientific American, November 8, 2004, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-can-a-person-sur/ (accessed January 12, 2015). ↑
- You can find all those sermons at https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 379. For a description of this height, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.11.5. ↑
- John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 30-31. This reminds me of some lyrics from Tom Waits’s song, “Misery’s the River of the World”: “The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.” ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 132. ↑
The following sermon was preached on September 3, 2017 by Brian Watson.
I don’t know how many of you have ever looked at the church’s business cards, but if you have, you may have noticed something strange on the back of the cards. If you turn one of those cards over, you’ll see a map of where the church building is located. That’s not the strange part. The strange part are some foreign words on the left-hand side of the card. There are five phrases written in Latin:
Soli Deo Gloria
Underneath those phrases are English words that give us the meaning of those Latin words:
The Bible Alone
By Grace Alone
Through Faith Alone
In Christ Alone
For the Glory of God Alone
Why are those words there? Well, the simple explanation is that John Battenfield, who designed the church logo, designed these cards, and he decided to put those words on the back. The reason he did that is because he knows that I subscribe to them. The more important reason is that these phrases are principles that came out of the Protestant Reformation. They describe, quite briefly, what a faithful, biblical Christian faith looks like.
You may wonder, how can there be five “alones”? Shouldn’t there be only one? Well, they’re “alone” in five different senses. The Bible is the only written word of God. Since God is the greatest authority, and since his written word is an extension of his authority, the Bible is our authoritative knowledge of God, salvation, and how to live for God. In other words, our inerrant, infallible knowledge of God is not found in the Bible and tradition, but only in the Bible.
We are reconciled to God by grace alone. That means salvation is a gift. It is not grace plus merit; in other words, our salvation isn’t partly God’s gift and partly something we have earned. If salvation were 99 percent gift and one percent our work, you can be sure we would mess that one percent up.
The way we receive that gift of salvation is by faith alone, not faith and works. Even our faith is a gift from God. The one who is reconciled to God is reconciled only on the basis of trusting God entirely for salvation. It’s true that a real faith will lead to good works, but those good works don’t add to our salvation.
We are reconciled to God in Christ alone. Jesus is the only mediator between God and sinful humans. There is no other savior.
And everything exists, ultimately, for the glory of God alone.
Those are principles of true, biblical Christianity that were recovered during the Protestant Reformation. And this year is the five hundredth anniversary of an event that is, at least symbolically, the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German monk, priest, and university professor named Martin Luther (1483–1546), nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This document was his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which are short statements against what he perceived to be the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was bothered by the sale of indulgences. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences can reduce the amount of time that someone spends in purgatory after death. A Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Apparently, Tetzel claimed that giving money to this cause could cover all sins. He encouraged people to buy indulgences for their dead relatives, using this sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther knew that this was contrary to what Scripture taught. In the years leading up to 1517, Luther had been studying and teaching the text of the Bible, particularly books like Romans and Galatians. He came to realize that the Bible taught that our right standing with God comes through grace by way of faith. It is a gift of God, given to undeserving sinners, and it is received by trusting God’s promises.
So, Luther realized that what the Catholic Church taught about salvation, and what it was doing through the sale of indulgences, was wrong. He protested by writing his Ninety-Five Theses. Among the theses, we find statements like these:
27. Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection-box, are preaching an invention of man.
53. They are the enemies of Christ and of the people who, on account of the preaching of indulgences, bid the word of God be silent in other churches.
54. A wrong is done to the word of God when in the same sermon an equal or a longer time is devoted to indulgences than to God’s word.
79. It is blasphemy to say that the cross adorned with the papal arms is as effectual as the cross of Christ.
80. Bishops, curates and theologians who allow such teaching to be preached to the people will have to render an account.
In his statements, Luther didn’t outright reject the Catholic Church. But he thought that some of its practices were contrary to what is in the Bible, and therefore should be corrected.
Luther sent his protests to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz, who sent them to Rome. Within a few weeks, his theses had spread throughout Europe. As you can imagine, Luther got in trouble with the Church. (One must keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church was the church of Europe.) In 1520, the Pope said Luther would be excommunicated unless he recanted. Luther burned the Pope’s letter. The Pope then issued another statement of excommunication at the beginning of 1521 and called the Emperor, Charles V, to put it into effect. The Emperor desired to hear from Luther and gave him one more chance to recant. So, an imperial assembly was convened in the city of Worms. At the end of that assembly, Luther said these words:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.
Luther, fearing he would be put to death for heresy, then hid in the Wartburg Castle in Wittenberg. While there, he translated the New Testament into German. Prior to this time, the only available translation of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate, which was 1,100 years old. Luther wanted to have the Bible available in the language that people could read and understand. Later, he supervised a translation of the entire Bible, which was finished in 1534. It is estimated that half a million copies of this Bible were distributed by the time of Luther’s death in 1546.
Luther was not alone. Others wanted to go back to the Bible to rediscover what God had spoken. William Tyndale translated most of the Bible into English before he was executed in 1536. Yes, it was illegal to translate the Bible into the vernacular language. Only some Reformers gave their lives, but all shared the same concern. They wanted to recover true Christianity by going back to the source, the Bible. Why would these people risk their lives to translate the Bible into their own languages and to oppose the doctrines of the Catholic Church? They did this because they knew that the words of the Bible are life-giving and vital. They knew what a treasure Scripture is, and they gave their lives to hear from God in his written word.
They also had concerns about what the Church was teaching in their day. Their concerns were captured by Luther, who wrote the following in a 1521 treatise titled The Misuse of the Mass: “The saints could err in their writings and the sin in their lives, but the Scriptures cannot err.” Luther recognized that the Bible alone is God’s written word, whereas the writings of all the theologians throughout history were not God’s word. God doesn’t make mistakes or lie, but human beings can be mistaken. Therefore, all our true knowledge of God should be based on the Bible, not on the writings of theologians. Of course, the writings of theologians may be helpful insofar as they rightly interpret Scripture. Luther, Calvin, and others often referred to earlier theologians like Augustine. But they knew that theologians could be wrong, and that is why we need to keep coming back to the Scriptures, to make sure that our knowledge of God is accurate.
So, this year, we celebrate the Reformation. And this isn’t just some interesting history. This is always relevant. As long as we need to hear from God and need to know how to be reconciled to him, this issue will be relevant. As long as we wonder how we can rightly live for God, this issue will be relevant.
We are bombarded with so many messages, so many words, and so many voices. How do we know whom to trust? How do we know who is telling the truth? How do we hear from God?
I can’t answer this question fully this morning, but I want to give a brief overview of Sola Scriptura by looking at a few passages in the Bible. First, let us turn to the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament. I’ll read the first four verses of the first chapter.
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. But whoever wrote it, he wanted us to know that Jesus is superior to all angels, prophets, and priests. The covenant he inaugurated, the “new covenant,” is superior to the old covenant made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. Jesus is God’s fullest and final revelation of himself.
I want to make a few observations about those verses. First, it says that God spoke. God is not silent. The God who made the world and everything in it has spoken. This is good news. God did not create the universe only to allow us to guess at meaning and truth. He has spoken, and we can know him.
Second, God has spoken “at many times and in many ways.” God hasn’t spoken just once, but multiple times. He spoke audibly to some people, like Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, among others. Sometimes, he spoke to people through dreams and visions.
Third, God has spoken “to our fathers by the prophets.” From the author’s perspective, this means that God spoke the Old Testament through prophets, men such as Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. God did speak directly to some people, but more often than not, God spoke through prophets. He spoke through their writings.
This is something that the apostle Peter mentions in his second letter. After describing his experience of Jesus’ transfiguration, when Jesus appeared in his glory as the Son of God and when he heard the audible voice of God the Father, Peter says this:
19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19–21).
When Peter refers to the “prophecy of Scripture,” he seems to be referring back to the Old Testament, which predicted Jesus’ coming. He says that this Scripture was not produced by men. He means that they didn’t simply invent whatever they wrote. No, they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” How this works, we don’t really know. What it means is that God didn’t simply dictate what he wanted written. He worked through these prophets, carrying them along to write what he wanted written. But he did this in concert with their own experiences, ideas, and cultural references. So, we can say that the Bible has dual authorship. The letters of Paul are really Paul’s letters. But they’re also God’s word, because God had Paul write exactly what he wanted written, without turning Paul into a mindless writing machine.
So, the Old Testament is the result of God speaking at many times and in many ways to the prophets, who wrote down what the Holy Spirit guided them to write. What about the New Testament?
The author of Hebrews says that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” There’s a lot of meaning packed into those two words. Jesus is God’s Son, and, as the next verse says, he is “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” He is a perfect representation and revelation of God the Father. And Jesus is the creator of the world, so he is clearly God himself. Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of God. That’s why John calls Jesus “the Word” at the beginning of his Gospel (John 1:1–18).
If that is true, then we must think about this: the only reason we know Jesus is because of the writings of the apostles and those who wrote down the testimony of the apostles. Apostles like Matthew and John wrote Gospels, biographies of Jesus. Others like Peter, Paul, and James wrote letters. Mark wrote a Gospel based on Peter’s recollections. Luke wrote a Gospel and the book of Acts based on eyewitness testimony, and we know he was familiar with Paul. In the book of Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Jesus is the cornerstone of the church, the one who determines the church’s size and shape. The apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament are the foundation, and the foundation is laid once. All our theology is built on that foundation.
It’s interesting that we don’t have any words of Jesus written down within the first hundred-plus years after his death and resurrection other than the words we find in the Bible. We do have references to Jesus in non-biblical works. But only in the Bible do we find Jesus’ words and only in the Bible do we find clear theological reflections in his life, death, and resurrection written by eyewitnesses. I don’t think this is an accident. I believe that God is in control of history, and that God reserves the right to be his own interpreter. The Bible is God’s written word. It is from God and it is primarily about God. If Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, it makes sense that God would want Jesus to be known clearly. He wouldn’t want confusing, competing versions of Jesus to be written. In order to know Jesus, the fullest revelation of God, we need to know the Bible.
But Jesus is also the final revelation of God. I think that’s what is intended when we read “in these last days.” In the New Testament, we have this idea of two ages: this age, and the age to come. In Matthew 12:32, when Jesus says that blaspheming the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he says it won’t be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come.” There are many references in the New Testament to “this age,” the age between Jesus’ first and second comings (Luke 20:34; 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:8; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:7). Judgement day will come at the end of “this age” (Matt. 13:39–40, 49; 24:3). And eternal life is found in “that age” (Luke 20:35) or “the age to come” (Mark 10:30). The New Testament says that the time between Jesus’ comings is the “last days” (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). And in this era, after the New Testament was written, there is no need for more revelation about Jesus. We know enough about Jesus to trust him and be reconciled to God and to live as God’s people.
I say that because some people may wonder why we should trust an “old book” that was completed over 1,900 years ago. Here’s my answer. First, if God wrote the book through human authors, and if God knows everything, including the future, and God is perfectly wise and good and never lies (Num. 23:19; 2 Tim. 2:13; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18), then it doesn’t matter how old the book is. Since God knows all times equally well, when he authored those words, he knew what would happen today. He knows what will happen in the future, too. So, it doesn’t matter when the words were written. Second, the Bible isn’t a book that is meant to describe all human history. It’s not a technical manual, a scientific textbook, a dictionary, or an encyclopedia.
No, the Bible is a covenantal book. We even see that in the word “Testament,” which comes from the Latin word Testamentum, which means “covenant.” A covenant is a pact or agreement that describes how God relates to his people. God initiates covenants with people and makes promises to them. Covenants also make demands of God’s people. The Old Testament describes the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the promise of the New Covenant. Most of the Old Testament concerns Israel under the “old covenant” made through Moses at Mount Sinai. That covenant demanded obedience to God’s law. Failure to obey would separate people from God.
The New Testament concerns the “new covenant,” which was made through Jesus’ death on the cross (Matt. 26:27–28). There will not be a “newer covenant.” The new covenant promises forgiveness of sins, transformation through the Holy Spirit, and real, personal knowledge of God (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). It is based on Jesus’ perfect obedience, because he perfectly fulfilled God’s law for us. There is nothing better than the new covenant. There is no new information we need to be part of God’s covenant people. We know enough about Jesus to trust that he lived the perfect human life (the kind that we should but can’t live because of our sin), that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (because sin must be punished and removed from God’s creation), and that he rose from the grave as a promise that God will someday resurrect the world and his people. We will then live with Jesus forever in a perfect world.
The Bible describes God’s great acts of salvation. Many theologians say that the Bible is about redemptive history. It tells of great and significant events like the creation of the world and of human beings, of the rebellion of humans against God and our fall into sin, of God making covenants and promises, of God bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, and of Israel’s continued sin. And then it tells us about God sending his Son to redeem a people of his choosing. Anyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus is part of that people, whether they walked this earth millennia ago or whether they walk the earth right now. The terms are the same: we must have faith in Jesus.
The next great saving act in redemptive history will be Jesus’ second coming. We’re given some information about that in the Bible. So, there is nothing to add to the Bible. In “the age to come,” we’ll be with Jesus in eternity, and then we can hear directly from him.
My point so far is that God has spoken through prophets, and he has spoken through his Son, and we know his Son through the apostles. If we want to hear God, we must read (or hear) the Bible.
There’s one more passage I want to look at, a quite famous one. It shows us what the purpose of the Bible is. Let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3:10–17. This is part of the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy.
10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Clearly, Paul wants Timothy to know that he has been honest in his dealings, even suffering persecution, in order to live a godly life. He also wants Timothy to know that there are deceitful people who deceive others. He tells Timothy to continue in the faith that he has learned, which he learned from “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” He’s surely referring to the Old Testament, because that’s what Timothy would have known as the sacred writings. The New Testament was in the process of being written. But Timothy would have regarded Paul’s gospel message as on the same level as the Old Testament, because that gospel message told him about Jesus.
And then Paul tells Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” God breathed out the words of the Bible. He sounded the words through the instruments of the human authors of the Bible, the way a trumpet player blows through a trumpet to produce music. The Bible is God’s sounding to mankind. And what does it do? Besides making people wise for salvation, it teaches us, it corrects us, and it equips to do good work for God. This is what the Bible does. If we want to be reconciled to God, know him truly, be taught and equipped and even corrected by him, we need to read the Bible.
Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone,” simply means that only the Bible is God’s written word. It doesn’t mean that we should only read the Bible. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only source of truth. We can and should read other books. We should learn about God’s creation by reading books about history, science, philosophy, and even novels that artfully capture something of the human condition. But we should never confuse those books—or any other words—with the Bible. The Bible is ultimately the work of a God who knows all things and who never lies. All other words are the products of finite human beings who don’t know all things and can and do make mistakes, whether they are honest or dishonest mistakes.
This is what one theologian, David Broughton Knox, says about the Bible:
“The canon [of the Bible] then is a very simple concept. It is putting into one classification or pigeon-hole those writings of which God is the Author, and putting into the other pigeon-hole all other writings which people have written-with a greater or lesser degree of truth—but which were not written by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit to convey God’s mind and Word to the reader, and are consequently not authoritative over the conscience.”
Only God’s words are ultimately authoritative. Great works of literature can be inspiring and even illuminating, but they are not authoritative or inerrant. The words of family, friends, professors, or other so-called experts are not completely true and wise. The words of historians, even if not in error, aren’t normative. They can tell us what happened, but they can’t tell us what should have happened.
Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean that we don’t need teachers. After all, the Bible says that we need pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). So, this concept doesn’t mean we as individuals study the Bible alone. We need to read the Bible in community. But even teachers can be mistaken, and their words need to be checked against the Bible (Acts 17:10–11).
My question for us is, do we read the Bible? Are we letting God speak to us? Do we trust that it is the only inerrant, divinely inspired, authoritative word that can bring us to a saving knowledge of God? Do we trust that it is God speaking to us to teach us and correct us? If we understand that the Bible is God’s word and that God is perfect, we will understand that the Bible can and will correct us, since we are not perfect. That’s what understanding means. We stand under the Bible. We don’t stand over it in judgment, determining what is right and what is wrong, deciding what is truth and what is lie. As one theologian says, “[C]orrect interpretation requires that we must submit ourselves to the Bible’s interpretation of us.”
Toward the beginning of the Bible, we read of a deceiver, a mysterious serpent, who approaches the first woman, Eve. What are the first words out of this deceiver’s mouth? “Did God actually say . . .?” (Gen. 3:1). That question is alive today. I have already read from 2 Peter and 2 Timothy. Many biblical scholars believe that these letters weren’t written by Peter and Timothy, but were written in their name. They try to convince us that the Bible doesn’t tell us the truth. I am familiar with their arguments and I believe they are wrong. Their arguments are weak, built almost entirely on speculation. In fact, in seminary I wrote a 40-page paper on the authorship of 2 Peter, and I’m convinced that it is indeed the work of Peter. I think people attack these books of the Bible because they stress the importance of right belief and they highlight the work of false teachers.
Some people believe the Bible is somehow God’s word and should be authoritative (on some level), but that it also contains errors. In response to views like this, the theologian Matthew Barrett writes, “Because it is God speaking—and he is a God of truth, not error—his Word must be true and trustworthy in all that it addresses. . . . Should Scripture contain errors, it is unclear why we should trust Scripture as our supreme and final authority.” He also writes, “Repeated attacks on Scripture’s own character reveal the enmity and hostility toward the God of the Bible within our own souls.”
Attacking the authority of Scripture or questioning the truth of Scripture was not how Jesus approached the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. When that ancient deceiver, Satan, tempted Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus answered him by quoting Scripture (Matt. 4:1–11/Luke 4:1–13). One of those Old Testament verses that Jesus quoted was, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). Jesus called the Old Testament the “word of God” (Matt. 15:6; John 10:35). He said that he didn’t come to abolish the Scriptures, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He said the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). We can’t pick and choose which ones we pay heed to. Jesus said that all Scripture points to him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39).
If we follow Jesus, we must take his view of Scripture. We must stand under it, yield to it, submit to it, use it to ward off temptation, and listen to it so that we know how to live for God. Jesus came to speak the words of God the Father (John 7:16; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10, 24). He told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them to know greater truth (John 14:26; 16:13–15). If we know Jesus, we will listen to the Father’s word, delivered by the Son and by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles.
Let me end with more words from the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 1:22–25):
22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for
“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,
25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”
And this word is the good news that was preached to you.
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 35. ↑
- Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 207. ↑
- Ibid., 209. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Ibid., 211. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45. ↑
- Ibid., 51. ↑
- Ibid., 40. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- See the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus,” December 14, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. ↑
- Listen to the Bible study, “What the Bible Is and What the Bible Does,” https://wbcommunity.org/how-to-read-the-bible. ↑
- Paul may very well have only the Old Testament in view, but he also recognizes that other New Testament writings were Scripture. In 1 Timothy 5:18, he quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, calling them both “Scripture.” Furthermore, in 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter regards Paul’s letters as Scripture, for he talks about deceitful people who twist the meaning of those letters, “as they do the other Scriptures.” ↑
- David Broughton Knox, D. Broughton Knox: Select Works, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God, ed. Tony Payne (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media), 47, quoted in Graham A. Cole, “Why a Book? Why This Book? Why the Particular Order within This Book? Some Theological Reflections on the Canon,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 467. ↑
- The naturalistic fallacy states that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is, just because something is the case doesn’t mean it ought to be the case. Similarly, we cannot derive an “ought” from a “was.” Just because something was the case doesn’t mean it ought to have been the case. ↑
- Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 61. ↑
- Ibid., 25. ↑
- Ibid., 22. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the Reformation principle known as Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. How do we know God? How can we hear from him? God speaks to us through his Son, by his Spirit, through the writings of the prophets and apostles. Scriptures include Hebrews 1:1-4; 2 Peter 1:19-21; and 2 Timothy 3:10-17.
Pastor Brian Watson presents a message on preaching. What is preaching? Why do we do need it? What should be preached? What does preaching do? These are questions that are raised and answered.