Jesus opens up God’s plan of salvation and judgment, which brings trials and judgment but also salvation. Who can stand on that great day of judgment? Brian Watson preached this sermon on April 18, 2021.
Guest preacher Steve Semas preached this sermon on January 17, 2021.
What happens after death? Jesus teaches some important facts about the afterlife in a famous passage, Luke 16:19-31. This passage doesn’t tell us everything about heaven and hell, but it tells us enough to warn us about how we live our days. To understand this passage in light of the whole Bible, listen to this message given by Brian Watson on August 4, 2019.
While at a meal, Jesus talks about seats of honor and inviting people to the great banquet of the kingdom of God. Who will eat at God’s table? The one who is humble and accepts God’s invitation. Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 14:7-24 on June 16, 2019.
Jesus sends his disciples out to tell the good news of the kingdom of God and to heal people. Though they will be met with opposition, some will receive their message and experience peace. Jesus promises that nothing will ultimately harm his followers and that they are blessed beyond measure. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 10:1-24 on February 24, 2019.
I have a question for the Patriots fans here: How many of you want the Patriots to lose today? Anyone? Do you think any of the Patriots woke this morning in Atlanta hoping that they would lose? Of course not! We want our team to win. Why? Because that will satisfy us. That will make us happy.
About sixteen hundred years ago, the great theologian Augustine observed this in his great book, The City of God: “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains, that all men desire to be happy.” In his Confessions, he writes, “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?” Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants the good life. But how can we be happy? How can we have the good life?
We often find happiness by getting things, whether it’s money or fame or, perhaps, by winning the big game. But experience tells us that we can’t gain happiness, or ultimate satisfaction, by winning. Fourteen years ago, Tom Brady won his third Super Bowl with the Patriots. A few months later, he was interviewed on 60 Minutes. This is what Brady said:
Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me? . . . I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it’s gotta be more than this. I mean this can’t be what it’s all cracked up to be. I mean I’ve done it. I’m 27. And what else is there for me?
Of course, Tom Brady now has five Super Bowl rings, and today he has an opportunity to get a sixth. Yet something tells me that six championships won’t satisfy him. According to the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “People who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals.”
After saying that in the interview, Brady was asked, “What’s the answer?” And Brady responded,
I wish I knew. I wish I knew. . . . I love playing football, and I love being a quarterback for this team, but, at the same time, I think there’s a lot of other parts about me that I’m trying to find. I know what ultimately makes me happy are family and friends, and positive relationships with great people. I think I get more out of that than anything.
I think that’s admirable of Tom Brady to say. Relationships certainly last longer than Super Bowl victories. But even those relationships, like all things in this life, come to an end.
So, the experiences of the rich, the famous, the accomplished tell us that happiness, that real life, doesn’t come through the greatest accomplishments.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible tells us the same thing. For example, read the book of Ecclesiastes. Most of the book consists of the words of the Preacher, a wise and wealthy king. He finds that life “under the sun”—in this world, from our perspective—is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). In other words, things don’t last. Even if we should have great pleasure, wisdom, and accomplishments (Eccl. 2), we will find those things empty. They won’t satisfy. And they don’t last. We could gain the whole world and lose it to decay and death.
According to Jesus, there is only one way to true happiness—to an abundant life that will ever end. Those things come not from winning, but from losing, which is contrary to what we would expect, and yet, it rings true with experience. If we first lose, we will gain, but if we strive to gain, we will lose.
Today, we will see that, and we will see once again who Jesus is and why he alone is the key to happiness and real life.
We’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in chapter 9, which we started last week. So far, Luke has told us about Jesus’ birth and then the beginning of his ministry as an adult. He has been teaching people about the kingdom of God and performing miracles, and he has called twelve disciples—twelve special followers who are learning from him. As Jesus does amazing things, the question of his identity keeps coming up. When he healed a paralyzed man, he also said the man’s sins were forgiven, which led people to ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). Later, Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee and the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25). Herod, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus and asked, “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9). Now, this question will be answered.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 9:18–20:
18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
Jesus was praying alone. Luke frequently mentions prayer, and I think it’s important that what happens is a response to Jesus praying. After praying, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. Jesus isn’t trying to get polling data. He’s not worried insecure about whether his message is coming across or not, as if he were a politician. What he’s doing is making sure that the disciples know who he is. The crowds say the same things that we heard last week, several verses earlier, when Luke told us about what Herod heard (Luke 9:7–9). But when Jesus asks the disciples who he is, Peter answers for the group: “The Christ of God.”
“Christ” is based on the Greek word that means “anointed one.” Another word for this is “Messiah,” which is based on a Hebrew word. It was used of priests (Lev. 4:5, 16; 6:15), the king (1 Sam. 2:10, 35; 12:3, 5; 16:6; 24:7, 11; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Sam. 1:14, 16; 19:22; 22:51; 23:1), and to a special Anointed one (Ps. 2:2) who is also called God’s Son in Psalm 2:7. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke of a coming King, a son of David, who would rule forever (2 Sam. 7:12–16; Isa. 9:6–7; 11:1–5; Jer. 23:5–6). It might be that Peter had this kind of king in mind, a powerful political ruler who would be just and righteous.
In Matthew’s Gospel, he records a fuller answer given by Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). (I suppose Luke has his reasons for only recording part of the answer.) When Simon Peter says this (in Matthew), Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). Peter has come to realize something true about Jesus, and this can only be known because it was revealed to him by God. Jesus’ true identity is not some bit of guesswork on our part. We don’t say he’s the Christ, the Son of God, because we’re speculating. We say that because God has revealed it to us through his written word, the Bible.
Even though the disciples were coming to realize who Jesus was, they still didn’t fully understand his identity. They didn’t fully understand why he came. So, Jesus starts to tell them more. Let’s read verses 21–22:
21 And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
This is the first time that Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in clear terms. He refers to himself as the Son of Man, which is a name that comes from Daniel, who sees a vision of a figure “one like a son of man,” who comes to God and receives “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Dan. 7:13–14). But before Jesus assumes that position of glory, he must first be rejected the Jewish religious leaders, suffer, and die. This must have been quite a shock to the disciples. Luke doesn’t record what happens next, but Matthew does. We’re told that Peter takes Jesus aside and says, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Peter couldn’t imagine that the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God, would die. It’s like he’s saying, “They can’t do that to you, Jesus. We’ll protect you. We’ll make sure they don’t harm you.” But Jesus’ response is harsh: “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). Remember that Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer.” That means it is part of God’s plan. To try stop Jesus’ suffering and death is to do the work of Satan, the devil, the one who is opposed to God.
If Jesus does not suffer and die, then God cannot save his people from their sin. He is not only the anointed one, the King of kings, but he’s also the suffering servant prophesied by Isaiah (Isa. 52:13–53:12), the one who would take the penalty of his people’s sin, be punished in their place, so that they could go free. God takes our sin very seriously because it is a rebellion against him. It’s a personal affront to him. But it’s also corruptive. It poisons his creation and destroys everything. The reason we can’t be completely happy and satisfied in this world, even under the best circumstances, is because of sin, which leads to our separation from God. We have a broken relationship that can only be healed if someone takes our punishment and unites us to God. That’s exactly what Jesus came to do.
The kingdom of God cannot come without the cross. You can’t know who Jesus and have a right relationship with him if you don’t acknowledge both his status as King and his suffering on the cross for our sin. You can’t know Jesus unless you realize that it was God’s plan to have him die in our place, to pay for our sin. And this was Jesus’ plan, too, as he knew full well. There are people today who say they are Christians who don’t seem to realize that Jesus is both Lord and Savior. They reduce him to a symbol of “love,” an example of how to be nice. In their view, it’s not clear that Jesus is God, and it’s not clear why he had to die. They call themselves “progressive Christians,” but their views have been around for a long time. About eighty years ago, Richard Niebuhr said this about this view: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” That kind of Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. It’s useless. We need God to have wrath over injustice, because he cares about right and wrong, and sin corrupts his creation. We need a Christ with a cross or else we would die in our own sins.
But Jesus didn’t come just to teach us to be nice, to be kind to one another. He came to rescue us from condemnation and to transform us. And if you want to be united to Jesus, which is the only way to have forgiveness of sins and eternal life, you have to be changed at the very core. Jesus starts to teach his disciples this in verses 23–27:
23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27 But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus says that his followers need to follow in his footsteps. They must be willing to suffer as well. First, he says that his followers must deny themselves. They’re something within us that must be denied. He does not say, “I love you just the way you are.” He says, “There’s something wrong within you. You must change. You must deny your wrong desires, some of your natural inclinations.”
Second, he says that his followers must take up their crosses daily. Now, the cross for us has become a nice symbol. People wear it on necklaces. We see it in all kinds of designs. And we trivialize the saying, “We all have our cross to bear.” “Your husband snores? Well, we all have our cross to bear.” In the Roman Empire, the cross was an instrument of torture and death, reserved for slaves, for enemies of the state. It was reserved for terrorists. They were made to carry the crossbeam to the site of their death, the same beam upon which they would be impaled and hanged for hours or even days until they died, bearing that shameful death in public view. Perhaps we could recover a bit of the original shock of Jesus’ words if we imagined him saying something like, “You must be guillotined daily.” Though that was a quick death and crucifixion was not. C. S. Lewis once said, “He says, ‘Take up your Cross’—in other words, it is like going to be beaten to death in a concentration camp.”
What Jesus is saying is that we must be willing to suffer. We must also put to death those wrong desires, and we must do that daily. We don’t enter into a relationship with Jesus because we’re good. We are saved by grace, which means it’s a gift from God, not something we have earned. So, when we become Christians, it’s because we realize how messed up we are. We are not what we should be, and we realize that only Jesus can help us. As we follow him, we are a work in progress. Our old desires haven’t magically disappeared. Even when we feel like we’ve controlled them, they can still pop their ugly heads up. And when they do, we must cut those heads off again. We have to crucify the old desires—if they’re contrary to God’s ways. Not all desires are wrong. But there are some that are wrong and destructive, and they must die.
We also must be willing to suffer as Christians. Life as a Christian isn’t easy. It requires discipline, effort, work. We don’t work to earn God’s favor, but once we’ve received salvation, we’re supposed to “work it out,” or put it to use. The good news is that God gives us the strength to do that (see Phil. 2:12–13). He works in us through the Holy Spirit. But change comes slowly through effort, through practice. So, we have that internal battle. But there’s also an external battle. People will hate Christians. Jesus told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). The world killed the most loving, perfect man who ever walked the face of this planet. It will not treat Christians differently. We must be willing to bear whatever hatred the world throws our way, including name-calling, being excluded, and even being persecuted.
Third, Jesus tells his disciples to follow him. We follow his example, but we must also obey his commands. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Hearing and following means obeying what Jesus commands.
Now, if this all sounds too difficult, there is great news. Those who trust Jesus, take up their cross, and follow him will gain the whole world. They will be acceptable to God. They will experience God’s love and favor forever. But those who reject Jesus and try to gain the world on their own will lose it. This seems like a paradox.
There is something paradoxical about seeking meaning and happiness in this life. If you seek primarily after happiness, you likely won’t find it. That’s because we seek happiness in money and the things it can buy, often stuff, whether that’s clothing and jewelry or houses, cars, and gadgets. We think we’ll be happy when we’re more comfortable, or better entertained. But happiness often comes through focusing on others. When we help other people, when we live for something beyond ourselves, we find happiness. Seek after happiness, and you will likely lose it. Seek after something greater than happiness, and you’ll get happiness thrown in.
That same principle could be applied to so much in life. Want a good marriage? Don’t focus on trying to get your spouse to please you, or to create a romantic environment. Focus instead of loving your spouse. Want a good worship experience? You can try to manufacture a good experience of worship, by having the right physical environment and the right songs, but you can’t guarantee it will come. My best experiences in worship come at really odd times, like hearing someone sing a song about Jesus a cappella, or without accompaniment. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said this about trying to create an experience of the Holy Spirit: “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart. I looked at the dove, and it flew away.” The point is that if you want a great religious experience, focus on Jesus and you’ll get it. But if you focus on a great religious experience, you won’t get it.
If we try to find ultimate meaning or happiness in the things of this world, or in ourselves, we won’t find it. But if we seek those things in God, we will. Augustine knew this well, which is why he writes things like these statements in his Confessions: “When I seek for you, my God, my quest is for the happy life.” “That is the authentic happy life, to set one’s joy on you, grounded in you and caused by you.” Christianity isn’t a joyless march to suffering and death. Christianity is actually about finding the greatest joy. But we find that joy in the very source of our lives, in God. If we seek for true life in anything less than God, we will only find death. We can gain the whole world and lose it, or we can give up control over our lives to God and find, in the end, that we haven’t lost anything, but we’ve gained everything
And after the suffering of this life comes glory. Jesus told his disciples that he would suffer and die, but he also said they would see the kingdom of God. We’ll look at this more next week, but after this passage, Jesus takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray. And as he prays, his appearance changes. His face starts gleaming. His clothes become a dazzling white. And the voice of God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (See Luke 9:28–36.) This is a glimpse of Jesus’ true identity and a glimpse of what he is like after he dies and rises from the grave. Though he died, he rose in a body that is indestructible, a glorified body that can never die again. And all his followers will experience the same. Though we suffer and die in this life, one day we will be raised again in indestructible bodies and we will live with God forever in a perfect world. We will experience perfect, unending happiness, infinite joy. But that only comes after we first are willing to put our old selves to death.
So, what does this mean for us? The only way to be right with God, to have true peace, happiness, and to live forever in a perfect world, is to be united to Jesus. To be united to Jesus means being willing to come after him, deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow him. We have to put the old self to death and put on the new self.
Here’s what this doesn’t mean. Dying to self isn’t becoming a Buddhist and eliminating all desire and attachment. It doesn’t mean being stripped of all your personality and becoming a mindless slave or a robot. Christianity teaches us that we can enjoy God’s creation, when we use it rightly, according to his design. We can have fun. We have personalities. Not all desires are bad. Not every single aspect of us must change completely when we become Christians, though we the overall trajectory of our lives will change, our motives and purpose for living will change, and we will come under the rule of Jesus, not ourselves and our desires.
But Christianity does teach that things do have to change. And we need to use Scripture to know which things must change and how we must change. I think one passage of Scripture teaches us quite clearly.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he indicates what the life of a Christian should look like. At the beginning of chapter 3, he says that Christians should seek Jesus and have their minds fixed on him, not primarily on all the things of this world. He says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). He also says that Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). In his letter to the Galatians, he says something similar. He says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Jesus now owns us and lives in us. Our old identity, our old selves must die so that we can truly live.
Then, Paul writes the following, which is worth reading. This is Colossians 3:5–17:
5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
So, what do we put to death? “Sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” “Anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” Lying, a feeling of being superior to people who are different from us. In short, we have to stop being greedy, stop grabbing every kind of pleasure, stop making something other than God the ultimate reason why we live. Whatever we love most, whatever we trust in most, whatever dictates the course of our life—that is our God, that is what we’re truly worshiping. If any of the things we do causes us to worship a false god and reject God’s design for our lives, we need to kill it.
But it’s not enough to kill something bad. We must replace the bad with the good. So, what do we do? We become compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. We bear with one another. We forgive one another. We love—not some generic love, but the way God instructs us to love. We thank God. And we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God.” Notice that you can’t have a new self without God’s word, the Bible. And we can’t do it alone. We must meet together regularly and teach and admonish one another and sing together. And “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
That’s what it looks like to deny our selves and follow Jesus. And that can only come if we give ourselves—our whole selves—to Jesus.
Jesus never said, “Invite me into your heart.” That silly saying isn’t in the Bible. I hate some of the clichés we have because they give the wrong impression. That sounds like you can give Jesus a tiny portion of your life. Jesus doesn’t just want a little place in your heart. He wants your whole heart, you whole body, your whole mind, and your whole soul. When we invite Jesus into our lives, he takes them over. And that’s how things should be. If we try to retain control of our lives, we will drive them into a ditch. Controlling our lives leads to disaster. But if we let Jesus take over, he will bring us home, to God and all that comes with a right relationship with him: peace, meaning, happiness, security, and true, unending life.
C. S. Lewis had so much to say about this. I encourage you to read his Mere Christianity, one of the great books on Christianity. I’m tempted to give you a whole heaping of Lewis quotes on killing the old self, but I’ll end with just a short one: “The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”
- Augustine, City of God 10.1, trans. Marcus Dods (1950; New York: Modern Library, 2000), 303. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196. ↑
- Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 94–95. ↑
- This interview was conducted in June 2005. The relevant part of the transcript is available at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/transcript-tom-brady-part-3/ (accessed February 5, 2016). ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (1937; New York: Harper & Row, 1959), 193. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 197. ↑
- Quoted in Vaughan Roberts, True Worship (Waynesboro, GA: Authentic Lifestyle, 2002), 91. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xx, trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 196. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions X.xxii, 198. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; New York: HarperOne, 2001), 213. ↑
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is the heart of true Christianity. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 9:18-27, on February 3, 2019.
What is something in your life that seems impossible? Is there a task that you must do, but you don’t know how you’ll accomplish it?
What is the greatest opposition you face in life? What is getting in your way?
How will you do the first thing and overcome the second? How can will do the impossible and overcome whatever is stopping you?
There are things in life that seem impossible. It might be a health issue. It might seem impossible that you or your loved ones will get better. It might be a task like raising kids, which sometimes seems impossible. How will we provide for them, protect them, and teach them all the life lessons that they need to learn? Maybe there are impossible people in your life, or you have a job that seems impossible.
There are also things in our lives that seem to be opposing forces. We’re trying to do those impossible things, and just when we feel like we’re making progress, something or someone comes up against us. If it’s our health that we’re working on, it could be another illness, an injury, a condition, a disease. If it’s raising kids, it could be bad influences on our children, like other kids in school, or drugs. If it’s our job that we’re talking about, it could be a difficult coworker.
I ask these questions because we’re going to see today that Jesus calls his disciples to do tasks that seem impossible. And they are impossible—apart from the power of God. We also see that Jesus and his followers face opposition, sometimes from powerful people. But we will also see that Jesus is able to provide, to make the impossible possible, and Jesus is able to overcome the powers that oppose his people.
We’re continuing to study the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll look at Luke 9:1–17. What I’m going to do is read the whole passage and then focus on those three points: Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible; Jesus and his disciples face opposition; and Jesus provides and overcomes.
So, let’s read Luke 9:1–17:
1 And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3 And he said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. 4 And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. 5 And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” 6 And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
So, first, Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible. He has “the twelve” with him. These are not just any of his disciples, which means “students,” but the disciples, or apostles. He sends them to proclaim news of the kingdom of God, that the King has come and people can enter into God’s kingdom by turning from their sin (repenting) and trusting in King Jesus (believing). The verb that’s translated “send” is ἀποστέλλω (apostellō), which is related to the word “apostle.” These are Jesus’ official messengers, ambassadors, envoys.
Why is this task impossible? Well, miraculously healing diseases is obviously something that is impossible apart from God. But what’s so hard about proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God? On one hand, it’s not hard. You open up your mouth and say what you know about Jesus. But what makes it hard is that people often don’t believe. And you can’t make a person believe. Most of us realize it’s very hard to change a person’s mind. Even if people are confronted with a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments, people are stubborn. I’ve realized that most of us are very irrational. We don’t believe something to be true based on evidence. We often want something to be true, and then we believe it, whether there’s evidence to support that belief or not. And proclaiming a message that requires people to repent, to stop their old ways of sinning, has never been popular. It tends to be met with apathy and even hatred.
So, the task is hard, perhaps impossible. But Jesus seems to make it even harder. He asks them not to take a staff, a bag, bread, money, or an extra shirt. They’re supposed to rely on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps Jesus doesn’t want them to appear like they’re preaching for money. There were some philosophers in the Roman Empire who went around doing that. But it seems like, more importantly, Jesus is asking these men to trust that God will provide for them. There are going to be people who invite them in to their homes, who give them meals and a place to stay.
So, that’s one’s impossible thing that Jesus asks his followers to do. But in verses 10–17, Jesus asks them to do something else. After the disciples return from their mission, they retreat with Jesus to Bethsaida. But Jesus has been drawing some large crowds, and they follow him. Jesus welcomed the crowd and did what he asked the disciples to do: he taught them about the kingdom of God and he cured those who were sick.
As the day went on and it was getting late, the disciples showed concern for the crowds. They tell Jesus to send the crowds away so they can manage to find places to stay and food to eat. This is when Jesus asks the impossible of them. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The problem is there are five thousand men. Matthew’s Gospel says that there were also women and children (Matt. 14:21). So, let’s say there are about ten to fifteen thousand people. The idea that a group of twelve people could feed that large group is preposterous. The twelve only had five loaves and two fish. In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples ask if they should buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, which would be two hundred days’ wages (Mark 6:37). Let’s say that’s about $25,000 in today’s money. I doubt the disciples had access to that kind of cash. The point is that it’s an impossible situation. Well, it’s impossible for the disciples apart from God.
Second, we see that Jesus and his followers are met with opposition. When Jesus sends the twelve out on their mission, he tells them, “wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, if you’re talking about the kingdom of God and people don’t want to hear it, don’t waste your time. Shaking off the dust from your feet was like saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you, I don’t even want the dust of this crummy town to stay on my feet.” Jesus knew that people would reject him and his disciples. He knew his disciples would do well to focus on those who would believe. This suggests that there will always be people who reject the message of Jesus.
But the biggest opposition we see to Jesus is given in three verses in the middle of today’s passage. Again, here are verses 7–9:
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
Herod was the king of Galilee and he was generally not a good man. We already heard about him in Luke 3. John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative and the one who proclaimed the coming of the King, confronted Herod because he had married his brother’s sister. We were told that Herod had imprisoned John (Luke 3:19–20). Now, we’re told that Herod was perplexed by the news of Jesus. There were people saying some pretty wild things. Some had said John the Baptist was raised from the dead. Some said that it was actually the prophet Elijah. There’s a prophecy in the Old Testament that Elijah would return to bring people to repentance (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah doesn’t literally return, but John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy. Perhaps the people realized that someone like Elijah had come, because Jesus did call people to repentance. Others thought that another prophet had come, probably the prophet that Moses had promised would come (Deut. 18:15–19; John 6:14). I don’t think they actually believed in some form of reincarnation—that’s not the kind of thing Jews believed. But they knew someone special had arrived on the scene.
Herod can’t believe what’s happening. There was someone else who fit this description: John the Baptist. But Herod says he had John the Baptist beheaded. This is the only mention of John’s death that Luke gives us, though you can read more about it in Matthew 14:1–12 and Mark 6:14–29. Obviously, the person the crowds are going on about isn’t John. Herod took care of John. So, Herod “sought to see” Jesus.
Verse 9 is so short we can read over it quickly and not think about it. Herod had John the Baptist killed because he was a preacher of righteousness and also because Herod made a terrible promise to his stepdaughter, who asked on behalf of her mother that John’s head be served on a platter. Now, Herod wants to see Jesus. That’s rather ominous. If Herod had John killed, what will he do to Jesus? This is a short but strong bit of foreshadowing. Herod will meet Jesus shortly before Jesus’ death, though Herod found nothing wrong with Jesus (Luke 23:6–16).
Jesus’ disciples were rejected because of their message, but Jesus was killed because of who he was. And Christians today still face rejection and, sometimes, death because of who they are, what they believe, and what they do and do not do.
The third thing we see is that Jesus provides. When Jesus sends out the apostles, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” He empowers them to do what he asked them to do. I’m sure that the disciples had to trust that they could do what they were called to do. They might not have felt like they had authority and power. They would only know when they tried to heal people. They had to trust Jesus’ instructions about not bringing extra supplies on their trip. They couldn’t have known in advance that they would be successful, other than by trusting that Jesus was telling them the truth. And from what we see, they were successful. They preached and they healed in many villages.
Luke spends more time telling us about the results of Jesus’ command to feed the masses. Jesus tells the disciples to do something impossible: feed thousands of people with very little food. He instructs them to have the people sit down in groups of fifty. Then he takes their meager bit of food, says a blessing over it, and breaks the bread so that it can be distributed. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone. We’re told that “they all ate and were satisfied.” Twelve baskets full of leftovers remain—one for every apostle. This is clearly a miracle, the kind of thing that only can Jesus can provide.
I have heard it said that the miracle was that Jesus got all the people to share their food. In other words, Jesus didn’t miraculously multiply a small amount of food. Instead, his act of generosity led everyone else in the crowd to be generous, so that everyone had enough to eat. According to that interpretation, if we would all share what we have, everyone in the world would have enough. Now, that last part is surely true. But it seems that it’s clear that Jesus miraculously multiplied the food. Otherwise, the disciples wouldn’t have been worried about the people getting food in the first place. And John’s Gospel makes it clear that the people were amazed that Jesus could do this and they followed him in order to get more food.
I think there’s a reason why these two stories—the going out to proclaim the gospel (the good news of the kingdom of God) and to heal, and the feeding of the masses—are told together. They’re related. The feeding of the masses is a sign indicating something more than literally feeding the hungry. Feeding the hungry is important. We need food to live. But there’s more to reality than this life. Whether we have a lot to eat or a little to eat in this life, we will die. We need something that will give us life beyond death. And this is something that only Jesus can provide.
In John’s Gospel, after Jesus feeds the masses, they follow him. And Jesus says something very important to them. I want to read this passage, because it sheds light on the meaning of this miracle. So, let’s turn to John 6:26–51:
26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus tells the crowd that the physical bread they are eating doesn’t last. You have to eat more each day, just like the Israelites in the Old Testament had to collect the “bread from heaven,” manna, every day. You can be well-fed in this life and die eternally. But Jesus is the superior bread from heaven, the one that gives life after death. He says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” And what is this food that endures? “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus is that bread.
How can Jesus be the bread of life? What does that mean? Well, think about this: we need food to eat or we will die. But everything we eat dies in order to feed us. That’s certainly true of meat, but it’s also true of plants. For bread to be made, grain has to die. The result is that we live. Jesus is the God-man, the Son of God who also became a human being. And his body was broken on the cross, an instrument of torture and death, so that we could live. The cross was used to punish criminals, enemies of the Roman Empire. Though Jesus had done nothing wrong—he is the only person who has never sinned—he was treated like a criminal. That happened so that we, who have sinned against God, can go free. His body was broken, and he died so that we could have life.
This story of blessing and breaking bread foreshadows the last supper Jesus had with his disciples. On the eve of his death, Jesus ate a Passover meal with his disciples. At that meal, he took the bread and said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He took the cup of wine and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). He said it was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). God’s covenant, his pact with his people, demands perfect obedience, which none of us possess. Jesus is the only perfectly obedient one. And God’s covenant demands that sin must be punished. Jesus paid the penalty for our rebellion against God, our failure to love him and live for him the way that we should.
But Jesus’ death only covers the sins of those who come to him as the bread of life. How can we partake of this spiritual food? Jesus said that we must do the work of God, and he defines that for us: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” We must trust Jesus. We must believe that he is the Son of God who became a human being, who lived a perfect life and died an atoning death. But we must not just trust that certain facts about him are true. We must trust him, which means we must follow him. We don’t earn a right standing with God through our obedience. We receive a right standing by faith. But real faith leads to doing what God wants us to do. We do this out of love and gratitude, not in an effort to earn something from God or manipulate him to do what we want.
And that leads me to the question that I always ask: what does this have to do with us? What should we learn from this passage?
God has called us to do the impossible. He has called us to turn from our sin and put our faith in his Son. Apart from God providing for us, we could not do this. The human heart is so corrupted, so confused and deceitful and divided and fickle, that we could not love God properly unless he gave us the power to do that. In a passage about salvation that comes up later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
God has called us to be his witnesses. Now, we’re not all apostles. Jesus has not commanded us to go to every town and heal the sick. We’re not all called to travel with no supplies—though I’m sure many of us could travel far more lightly, by having a lot fewer possessions. But we should all be witnesses to Jesus, wherever we are. And that can feel like an impossible task. It might feel impossible because it’s hard to talk about Jesus. People aren’t thinking about eternal life. They’re thinking about politics, the bills they have to pay, the things that they have to do today, and perhaps the Super Bowl. But people generally don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of life, what happens after death, if there’s a God and what he’s like, and how we can be right with God. We live in a very trivial culture, where the big questions of life are suppressed and ignored. So, when we talk about Jesus, people may think we’re crazy.
And when we do talk about Jesus, people may very well reject us. We could lose friends. People may say angry and hateful things to us. They may listen politely while inwardly rolling their eyes at us. Or, they may believe. We trust that God still does the impossible, opening up people’s eyes to see the truth, causing people to be born again so that they can enter the kingdom of God.
Like Jesus and his disciples, Christians today experience opposition. We see increased opposition in this country, but nothing like what Christians in other parts of the world experience. I think of the Christians in China. There are millions of Christians in China. It’s possible that there are more true Christians there than in the United States. China is a Communist country, and they have churches that are officially recognized by the state. But there is pressure to compromise beliefs in order to be part of the state-recognized church, so there’s a large number of unofficial churches. Recently, the government has been cracking down on these churches, removing crosses from their buildings, having them fly the Chinese flag and sing patriotic songs, and even barring minors from attending.
The government is producing its own version of the Bible, with a new translation and notes that will highlight commonalities between Christianity and Communism. Bibles can’t be purchased online in China, so the government is trying to keep “unofficial” versions of the Bible out of the hands of its citizens.
Lately, the government has been shutting down the unofficial churches, including one in the city of Chengdu called Early Rain Covenant Church. The pastor and his wife, along with about a hundred others, were arrested in December. As far as I understand, the pastor and his wife are still detained. The church continued to meet, though they were evicted from their building. I saw video of them meeting in a park. I’m sure they are trusting that God will provide for them, even if they should be imprisoned. The government can take away a building, bread, and life, but they can’t take away the bread of life and eternal life.
Opposition to Jesus and his people has existed from the beginning, but it can never defeat Christianity. I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’s great book, Mere Christianity:
Again and again it [the world] has thought Christianity was dying, dying by persecutions from without and corruptions from within, by the rise of Mohammedanism [Islam], the rise of the physical sciences, the rise of great anti-Christian revolutionary movements. But every time the world has been disappointed. Its first disappointment was over the crucifixion. The Man came to life again. In a sense—and I quite realise how frightfully unfair it must seem to them—that has been happening ever since. They keep on killing the thing that He started: and each time, just as they are patting down the earth on its grave, they suddenly hear that it is still alive and has even broken out in some new place. No wonder they hate us.
Jesus calls us to do the impossible, and we are opposed by evil forces—forces from without and even forces from within as we continue to battle our own sin. But Jesus also provides. Do you believe that? Do you trust Jesus so much that you obey him, even when it looks like what he’s asking you to do is impossible?
If you’re a Christian, I want to ask you this: what is it that you are doing in your life for Jesus that seems impossible? In other words, what is it about your life that demonstrates that you trust Jesus? What hard tasks are you doing simply because you are a Christian? It might be being very generous with your money even though you don’t know what will happen financially this week, this month, or this year. Instead of stockpiling all kinds of finances, we’re supposed to trust that our Father will provide our daily bread. So, we give to the church and we give to the poor. You might consider giving to a ministry like the Voice of the Martyrs, which helps persecuted Christians.
Trusting Jesus might mean sharing the gospel with people, even if you don’t know how they’ll react. Actually, it means talking about Jesus when you don’t know how people will react. If you do this, you may lose a friend. Or, you may gain a brother or sister in Christ. Trusting Jesus might mean staying married even though it’s hard, or raising your children in a Christian way even though the world around you says to do something else. Our lives should reveal how we’re trusting in Jesus.
Christians should care about both preaching the gospel and feeding the masses. I once heard John Piper, while he was still a pastor, talk about how his church viewed “ministries of mercy,” basically giving to the needy. He said his church was committed to alleviating suffering, so they did have ministries that helped the poor. But he said his church viewed eternal suffering as of far greater importance. If you care about suffering people, give them literal bread, give them money. But also give them the bread that gives eternal life, the kind of bread that can’t be bought with money but can only be received by faith. Christianity only makes sense if it’s viewed in light of eternity. Christianity is not about ending suffering in this life, which is truly impossible. But it is about ending the suffering of those who come to faith in Jesus.
If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. There is a life after this life, and it will either be one of infinite joy or infinite suffering. The only one who can give you eternal, abundant life is Jesus. I invite you to have a right relationship with him. That means that he is who the Bible says he is, that he has done what the Bible says he has done, and that his path for your life is better than any you could ever come up with. If you don’t know Jesus, or if you’re not truly trusting him, I urge you to turn to him now.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Information about what’s happening in China can be found in Lily Kuo, “In China, They’re Closing Churches, Jailing Pastors – and Even Rewriting Scripture,” The Guardian, January 13, 2019,
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 222. ↑
Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible, and both Jesus and his followers faced (and still face) opposition. Yet the good news it that Jesus makes the impossible possible. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 9:1-17 on January 27, 2019.
What’s the hardest thing that we can face in this life? I don’t think it’s loss of money or income. We can always get another job or hope that more money comes in. Is it rejection from people we love? I don’t think so, though rejection from loved ones is devastating. Even if our family and friends disown us and unfriend us, we can always find new people to love and be loved by. I think one of the hardest things we face in this life is the decay of our own bodies—and also of the bodies we love.
Many of us know what it’s like to be seriously ill, or to have had—or to have right now—some serious injury or condition that keeps us from being completely healthy. When your body is weak or in pain, it’s hard not to think about it. Other difficulties in life are ones that we can forget for some periods of time. Even those who are mourning or hurting over a rejection can have times when they laugh or feel happy. But a body in pain stays in pain always. And sometimes illnesses or conditions keep some people from getting out, from engaging in life the way that others do. In those cases, health problems can isolate us and make us feel alone, unproductive, and unwanted.
Of course, this hits home when it’s happening to our bodies. But it also hurts us when our loved ones have these major health problems. And regardless of whether we’re healthy or not right now, or whether our spouses or kids or parents or friends are healthy or not right now, all of us will die. Before we die, we will lose many loved ones to death. And that reminds us of our own impending deaths.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll mention it again: there’s an interesting book called A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, by a French philosopher named Luc Ferry, who happens to be an atheist. He describes philosophy as basically an attempt to figure out how to live in a world in which we will all die. He says this of man (and of woman, too): “He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die. Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.” What is it that all humans want? “To be understood, to be loved, not to be alone, not to be separated from our loved ones—in short, not to die and not to have them die on us.” Ferry says that all religions and philosophies are an attempt to find salvation from the fear of death.
Now, this might not be a very cheerful way to begin a sermon. But the reality is that all of us will face health concerns and all of us will face death. Those are things that every human being deals with, and some of us are dealing with that right at this moment. And if that was all there was to the story—your body breaks down, everything and everyone you love will pass away, and you will die—there would be no hope. But there is hope. Christianity has something amazing to say about hope in the face of illness, decay, and death. Luc Ferry, that atheist I just mentioned, says, “I grant you that amongst the available doctrines of salvation, nothing can compete with Christianity—provided, that is, that you are a believer.” I suppose the reason he says that is because Christianity promises life after death to believers. It promises that death is not the final word. The problem for Ferry is that he doesn’t believe it. But he admits that French students in his generation weren’t exposed to Christianity and the Bible. He likely never bothered to read strong defenses of the truth of Christianity.
At this church, we try to think about why we should believe Christianity to be true. And the greatest reason to believe is Christ himself. And the best way to know Jesus Christ is to read the Bible, particularly the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each one a biography of Jesus, focusing on his teachings, his miracles, his death, and his resurrection from the grave.
For most of the last thirteen months, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’re look at Luke 8:40–56. We’ll see here that Jesus performs two miracles that show he has power over both illness and death.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:40–42a:
40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him. 41 And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.
Jesus has returned from the eastern shore of Sea of Galilee, the Gentile region known as the Decapolis. Specifically, he was in a place called the Gerasenes, where he exorcised a large amount of demons out of a man. On the way there, Jesus had calmed a storm. We looked at these two miracles last week.
Here, back in Galilee, a man named Jairus comes to Jesus. Jairus was the ruler of synagogue. He would have been in charge of the services at the synagogue. He was something like a lay leader, the one who decided who could read Scripture at the synagogue. He wasn’t a Rabbi or a civil leader, but he provided order and he would have been a well-respected leader in the community.
This man falls at Jesus’ feet, which shows how desperate he is. His only daughter, about twelve years old, is dying. The Greek word that is translated as “only” is μονογενὴς (monogenes), the same word used of Jesus to describe him as God’s only Son or, in older translations, his “only begotten” Son. This man’s one, beloved daughter is dying, and he begs Jesus to help her. So, Jesus goes with Jairus to his house.
Now, let’s read the end of verse 42 though verse 48:
As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. 43 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. 44 She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
Jesus has been drawing crowds because of his teaching and miracles. People are crowding him, pressing upon him. It’s like he’s a celebrity.
Among the people pressing against him is a woman “who [has] had a discharge of blood for twelve years.” In other words, she’s bleeding both during and between menstrual periods. I guess there’s a technical name for this: menometrorrhagia. It seems she had some type of hemorrhage that couldn’t heal. Luke tells us that she “spent all her living on physicians,” but “she could not be healed by anyone.” There’s some debate about whether “spent all her living on physicians” belongs to the original copy of the Gospel. There are some early manuscripts that don’t have these words, though most manuscripts do. Luke was a doctor, so if he wrote this, it’s quite stunning (Col. 4:14). Mark says the woman “had suffered much under many physicians” (Mark 5:26).
Now, some of you here might be able to relate to this woman. You might be thinking, “I know exactly what that’s like. I’ve seen many doctors who haven’t been able to help me.” We’ve all seen people who couldn’t be healed, regardless of how many specialists they had seen and how much money they have spent.
But this woman’s condition would have caused her greater problems than mere physical ones. This had been going on for twelve years, and I’m sure her condition was inconvenient and possibly embarrassing. But what made it worse was that in her Jewish context, this condition made her unclean. This is a hard concept for us to grasp, because it’s so foreign to the way that we think. In the book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions for how the Israelites should worship and live as God’s people. There are many instructions on how to be clean. The things in the book of Leviticus that make a person unclean are not necessarily sinful, but they are the result of sin in the world. One of the things that makes a person unclean is blood, which, when it’s outside the body, is usually related to death. Various conditions, diseases, and death itself are the result of sin in the world. And sin is our rebellion against God.
When God made human beings, he created them in his image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28), which means that we were made to worship God, to reflect his greatness, to rule over the world by coming under his rule, to love him and obey him because he’s a perfect Father. But the first human beings didn’t want to live for God; instead, they wanted to be like God, to be gods who lived for themselves. They didn’t trust that God is good. They didn’t do things God’s way. So, God removed them from Paradise and put his creation under a curse, which is a partial punishment for this rebellion. This is our story, too, for we often don’t want to live for God and do life on his terms. This is why we have health problems, diseases, and death.
The book of Leviticus specifically talks about a woman bleeding beyond the time of her menstruation. This is Leviticus 15:25–31:
25 “If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her menstrual impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness. As in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean. 26 Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity. And everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her menstrual impurity. 27 And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. 29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 And the priest shall use one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.
31 “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”
This woman couldn’t be touched or touch others. She couldn’t worship at the temple and probably not at the local synagogue. She was isolated, and probably frustrated, embarrassed, and apparently broke from spending money on doctors who couldn’t help. When Mark’s Gospel says she suffered at the hands of doctors, it probably means that these doctors made things worse, not better.
This woman touches Jesus in the hopes that he can make her well. Like Jairus, she knew that Jesus was her only hope. She had probably heard that Jesus had healed many other people. In Luke 6, we’re told that people came to Jesus to hear his teaching and to be healed of their diseases. We’re told, “And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came out from him and healed them all” (Luke 6:19).
Perhaps this woman touched Jesus in this way so that her condition wouldn’t be found out by everyone. She wanted to be healed quietly, secretly. So, she simply touches the edge of Jesus’ garment.
But Jesus realizes someone has touched him. What this woman has done is not a secret to him. He senses that someone has accessed his power. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is some kind of battery with a limited energy source. What it means is that divine power was flowing through him and he was aware of it.
The disciples can’t believe that Jesus could discern that a specific person touched him and that power went from him to this person. There’s a massive crowd—how can Jesus know that one specific person touched him? But Jesus is the God-man, and he has the ability to know things that mere mortals wouldn’t know.
Jesus surely knew who it was who touched him. I say that because we’re told that the woman realized that she wasn’t hidden, that she couldn’t hide from Jesus. Jesus probably asked, “Who was it that touched me?” in order to draw this woman into making a public profession.
Like Jairus, this woman falls down, trembling, but probably for different reasons. She trembles in the presence of Jesus, the Lord who healed her. Even though she was probably afraid of speaking in public—she had been isolated for a long time—she decided to confess what Jesus had done for her.
Then, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” She might very well have been older than Jesus, but he calls her, “Daughter.” She is part of his family. What made her well? Ultimately, it’s Jesus and his power, the power of God at work in and through him. But the instrument that she used to access this power was her faith. She trusted that Jesus could heal her. The doctors couldn’t. Only Jesus could fix this problem.
Does this mean that Jesus will fix all our health problems? If we trust him, yes, he will—ultimately. But not in this lifetime. He may heal some of us, usually through secondary causes—through doctors and nurses, through diet and medicine and surgery. Jesus cannot heal all illnesses without rooting out all sin in the world. Sin is the cause of illness. But if Jesus removed all sin, he would have to end human history as we know it. He would have to remove all sinners—or at least their sin. But God hasn’t done that yet because he is giving people a chance to turn to Jesus now, before that great judgment day when all of us will no longer be hidden, but will be exposed for all that we are, all that we’ve done, all that we’ve thought and desired. Our secrets will be laid bare. And only Jesus can cover up our sins.
Jesus didn’t perform miracles to eliminate all evil. He performed miracles to show his identity. He is the great physician who will heal all who come to him. He has not promised to do this now, in this life. But he will do it in the end.
Today’s story started with Jairus and his dying daughter. Then, we were interrupted by the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Now, let’s go back to Jairus and his daughter. What happened to her?
Let’s read verses 49–56:
49 While he was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher any more.” 50 But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” 51 And when he came to the house, he allowed no one to enter with him, except Peter and John and James, and the father and mother of the child. 52 And all were weeping and mourning for her, but he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But taking her by the hand he called, saying, “Child, arise.” 55 And her spirit returned, and she got up at once. And he directed that something should be given her to eat. 56 And her parents were amazed, but he charged them to tell no one what had happened.
After Jesus has dealt with the bleeding woman, a messenger comes, saying that the girl is dead, don’t bother Jesus anymore, there’s nothing that can be done. This messenger lacks hope. This messenger lacks faith.
Jesus says, “Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” This might have sounded like a bad joke. Apparently, Jesus said this before he took the parents and three of his disciples inside the house. Those who were weeping and mourning outside laughed at Jesus. They laughed because he said, “Do not weep, for she is not dead but sleeping.” “Yeah, right, Jesus. That’s a good one!”
But Jesus was serious. The girl was dead, but only temporarily. She was about to be “woken up.” (By the way, Jairus’ name, in Aramaic, would have been Jair, which means, “God will awaken.”) Jesus touched the dead girl—this would have made him unclean (touching a corpse made someone unclean; Num. 19:11). And at his command, the girl rises. Her spirit comes back to her. The “spirit” is generally thought to be the person’s immaterial self that continues after death, though “spirit” (Greek: πνεῦμα) can also mean “breath.” She truly was dead and is now alive. Jesus even tells people to give her something to eat—she’s really alive, in a physical body that needs sustenance.
The people are amazed, and rightfully so, but Jesus tells them not to tell others. He knows that people want someone who can bring dead people back to life. But people don’t want all of Jesus’ teaching. He doesn’t want followers who are attracted to him for the wrong reasons.
So, what do we learn from this?
First, Jesus has the power to heal. He can do what we cannot do. Of course, we have much better medicine and technology than people had two thousand years ago. But there are still many conditions that we cannot fix, or fix completely. And we will never solve the problem of death. Death is the shadow that hangs over all humanity. Only Jesus can fix that problem.
Second, we should know that Jesus has not promised to fix death right now. Even this girl, whom Jesus brought back to life, would die again. And God has certainly not promised his people that they won’t have a physical death. We will die, unless Jesus should return before the end of our lives.
Jesus’ bringing the girl back to life was a sign that he has power over death, that he can bring people to spiritual life, and that there will be a resurrection of the dead. All who trust in Jesus can never die spiritually, but they will live forever.
Jesus famously brought his friend Lazarus back to life. In talking to Lazarus’s sister, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26). He is the resurrection. He is life (John 14:6). He will bring life to all who trust him. We have that life now, even though our bodies may wear out and die. But he will give us new bodies, bodies that are indestructible, that will never grow old and never die. Death does not have the last word for those who follow Jesus.
But that indestructible life will only come when Jesus returns. Christianity takes a long view of life, an eternal view. And that’s so important to keep in mind. If there is no afterlife, Christianity is false and useless. But if Christianity is true, then it means we will live eternally, either with God or separated from him and all that is good and right. God promises his people not a quick fix, but an eternal fix.
Third, think of the ways that Jesus steps into our different problems. Jairus says his twelve-year-old daughter was dying. Twelve years in that case seems so short. We have a sense that people should live much longer.
The woman was bleeding for twelve years. Twelve years must have seemed like an eternity for her.
I’m sure there’s no coincidence that the woman suffered as long as this girl was alive. God has a way of orchestrating events like this, juxtaposing things so they cast light on each other. Whether our suffering seems long, or lives are taken short, Jesus cares. And Jesus can heal.
Fourth, Jesus is for everyone. Jesus heals the outcast woman. He heals the beloved daughter of the well-respected Jairus. All who come to Jesus in faith are healed, regardless of their age, gender, skin color, ethnicity, religious background, how much sin they’ve committed, or how much money they have. The key thing is faith.
What does faith look like? It looks like trusting in Jesus, even when the odds seem impossible. It means believing that only he can fix our problems. Yes, if you’re sick, go see a doctor, but a doctor can’t give you eternal life. He or she can’t make you right with God. No amount of science, technology, money, or other human accomplishments can do that. Faith means humbling yourself, falling at Jesus’ feet, and realizing that he is God, that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. Faith means coming to Jesus for the right reasons, accepting not just his healing, but also his teaching, his leadership, his path for us.
This life is hard. Illness, disease, physical problems are hard. Death threatens to swallow everything we love up. But death is not the last word, not for Jesus, and not for his people. Do not fear; only believe.
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, transs. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2011), 2–3. ↑
- Ibid., 4. ↑
- Ibid., 261. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This sermon, preached on January 13, 2019, can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
- http://pennstatehershey.adam.com/content.aspx?productId=10&pid=10&gid=000100 ↑
Jesus performs two miracles in Luke 8:40-56. He heals a woman of a condition that plagued her for twelve years and he brought a girl back to life. Find out why this matters and what it means for us. Brian Watson preached this message on January 20, 2019.
Who is Jesus? How do we respond to him? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 7:18-35 on November 11, 2018.
Jesus performs two miracles that show his identity and what salvation looks like in Luke 8:22-39. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on January 13, 2019.
How many resolutions have your broken so far in this new year? I’m not asking if you’ve broken any resolutions. It’s January 6, after all. I’m asking you how many resolutions you’ve broken.
Resolutions are made to be broken, or so it seems. That means that either we’re quitters, or we set our goals to high. I have a friend from college—I’ll call him Seth, because that’s his name—who said he only makes resolutions he knows he can keep. He said one year his resolution was to wear his bathrobe inside his house every day. Another year, he resolved to never say “oh” instead of the number “zero.” Maybe there’s something to be said for setting the bar low.
But no matter how high or how low we set the bar, we realize that most of us don’t achieve our goals. Only some people seem to cross the finish line. Many resolutions involve diet and exercise. We realize that some people never bother to do those things. Some people start out with the best of intentions, work hard for a week or a month, and then give up. Only some people will achieve their diet and exercise goals.
The same is true when it comes to pursuing a relationship with God. In the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re told that some people won’t bother with the things of God. Some people will seem to have a relationship with him—they may seem to become Christians and talk about Jesus, attend church, and read their Bible—but then trials come, or they get too busy with other things in life, and they change. Only some people will truly pursue a relationship with God. These people will have a life-long relationship with God and are part of God’s family.
Today, we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, one of four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. If you haven’t been with us so far, you can catch up by visiting wbcomunity.org/luke. We’re still in the first half of the Gospel, so there’s a lot more to learn about Jesus, his teachings, and his death and resurrection.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 8:4–8:
4 And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6 And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. 8 And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Notice that Jesus is attracting a great crowd of people that have come from various towns. Jesus is still in Galilee, the region where he grew up. And perhaps because there’s a great crowd, he teaches in a parable. We’ve already seen a couple of short parables in Luke (Luke 5:36; 6:39), but we’re going to see many more of them, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about them. A parable is a way of teaching that isn’t direct, or straightforward. Sometimes, parables are like proverbs, short, colorful statements that teach theological truths. Other times, parables are stories that teach a theological truth, but not in direct way. The word parable comes from a Greek word that literally means something cast alongside. A parable comes alongside a truth and communicates it in an indirect way.
There are a lot of ways to communicate something. If I wanted to tell you about God, I could tell you things in short, propositional statements. I could say that God is all powerful. That’s a direct way of teaching something about God. But I could also tell you that by telling a story about a king who has complete control of his kingdom. I could tell you that God is merciful. Or I could tell you a story about how a king forgave his dishonest servant. I could tell you that God is loving. Or I could tell you a story about a father who loves his rebellious son.
There’s a lot to be said for teaching things in a direct way. But parables are different. They get you from point A to point B, but not in a straight line. They get there in a roundabout way, kind of like the way parabolas are curved. Parables get us to think. They’re colorful and memorable. To those who understand, they’re clear as day. But those who don’t understand may be stumped and might scratch their heads. This is why Jesus teaches in parables.
This parable is pretty easy to understand on one level. In Jesus’ day, people were all familiar with the basics of agriculture. To grow crops, you had to sow seed. We hear of a sower who sows seeds. Some seed fall on the path, where they get trampled on and the birds eat them. The path would have been hard ground, so the seed would have no chance to get into good soil to grow. Some seed fell on rocky ground. There would be a thin layer of soil above limestone. This seed would grow up to a point, but it couldn’t develop deep roots and it couldn’t draw in enough moisture to withstand the hot weather. Other seed grew up amidst thorns, which choked the plant and caused it to die. And some seed fell on good soil, where it grew and produced a large crop.
On one level, the story is easy to understand. But why is Jesus teaching about agriculture? What’s the point of this story?
The disciples want to know, so they ask Jesus, and he answers. Let’s read verses 9–15:
9 And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.
There are a couple of things to see here. The first is what Jesus says about “the secrets of the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God, to use a definition we studied recently in our Bible study, is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” Not everyone is part of God’s people. Only those who turn to the King and come under his rule will find his blessing. Luke clearly presents Jesus as this King, the one who has come to establish his kingdom on Earth. And the secrets of this kingdom, or what we might call the ways of this kingdom, are not communicated clearly to everyone. To Jesus’ disciples, he gives them the clear meaning, but others will only hear in parables that are not interpreted.
Jesus then quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah was sent to Israel, which was supposedly God’s people, to send them a message of warning about their sin, but also a message of hope for those who would hear. Israel had rebelled against God. They had worshiped false gods. They rejected the very reason why God made them, which was for his glory, so that they would know him, love him, and worship him. They rejected the true God and went after gods that seemed to please them, but who couldn’t help them. So, Isaiah was told to speak to them. But Isaiah was told that the people were hardhearted. They could see, but they couldn’t really see the truth. They could hear, but they wouldn’t hear God’s words and act on them. Because they worshiped idols, they became like them. Idols have eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear.
In a way, that’s our story. The Bible says that because we live in God’s creation, and because we were designed by God, we know certain things about God. We all know there is a God who exists, who created everything, who is powerful and eternal (Rom. 1:20; cf. Eccl. 3:11). But though we know this, we don’t pursue God. That’s because we don’t really want there to be a God who is both Creator and King. That kind of God tells us that he made things to function in a certain way. That kind of God is the ultimate authority. We tend to want to be the ultimate authority of our lives. We want to determine the course of our lives. We’re going to set our own goals, our own resolutions, thank you very much.
Because of our rebellious nature, God lets us go our own way. But he graciously reveals himself more clearly to some of us, those whom he is calling into his kingdom. This is what Jesus means when he prays to God the Father. This is what he says in Matthew 11:25–27:
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
It’s God’s gracious will to reveal himself. That means that knowing God is a gift. And so is salvation. Christianity teaches that we can be reconciled to God not because we deserve it, because we work hard or because we’re good. No, Christianity teaches that we’re so bad that the only way to be made right with God is if he gives us the gift of salvation. And if he has given us that gift, our lives will change forever.
The second thing we need to see is the meaning of the parable. For anyone who cares to read the Bible, the meaning is made clear. In the story about the sower and the seed, the seed is the word of God. Jesus has been sowing that seed, speaking God’s words. Those words will fall on deaf ears, who hear but don’t seem to understand (see Matt. 13:19), or perhaps who aren’t interested at all. Jesus says the devil comes and snatches the word away from such people. Elsewhere in the Bible, we’re told that “the god of this world” blinds “the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4).
The second type of soil is rocky, shallow soil. Jesus says these people appear to receive the word of God with joy. In other words, these people seem to believe for a while. But he says they have no root, and in a time of trial, and in that “time of testing” they fall away. The third type of soil is similar: this represents people who seem to believe for a while, but that faith is “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Does this mean that people can truly believe that God’s word is true and then later not believe?
I think that’s possible, but I also think that’s different from trusting in God himself. I believe that the Bible, in its totality, teaches that no one can truly understand who God is and what he requires of us, and then have a right relationship with him, unless God draws that person to himself and gives them eyes to see the truth. In other words, we can’t come to God unless we’re born again of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says in John 3. We can’t come to God truly unless he transforms us. And if he changes our hearts, we will be changed forever. We will not fall away from that kind of faith.
But the Bible also teaches the possibility of false conversions. Some people say they believe in Jesus. Some people will act like it for a while. But then they experience difficult times, perhaps hardships or temptations, and they walk away from Jesus. Others will care more about things that seem to be pressing realities, the “cares . . . of life.” They may say, “I’ll read the Bible when life slows down, when my kids are off to college, when I have some extra time.” Others will be consumed with “the riches and pleasures of life.” And these people will walk away from Jesus, too. These people were never “born again,” or regenerated by God.
This seems easy to understand. It’s easy to say you believe. Anyone can do that. Anyone can take a few steps toward following Christ. They can go to church, get baptized, read their Bible. They can appear quite sincere. But it’s one thing to do this for a little while and quite another to do this for a long time, particularly when life is difficult and when so many other things compete for our attention, affection, energy, time, and money. It’s like New Year’s resolutions. It’s not that hard to get a gym membership, to show up to the gym for a while, and to eat a healthier diet. A lot of people can do that for a week. But how many can do that for a month, or a year? How many people make that a new lifestyle? You can’t realistically say, “I’m going to get really buff by working out for a week,” or, “I’m going to lower my cholesterol by 50 points in the next week.” To become healthy, your life needs to change permanently, not just for a little while. The same thing is true of pursuing a relationship with God.
Those people who appear to have faith but don’t follow through in their relationship with God never had true faith. As the apostle John writes, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). These people who end up walking away from the church were never “of us,” they were never transformed by God, they were never born again of the Holy Spirit, they were never saved.
Some people have a hard time accepting that. In my experience, those people are usually parents whose kids went to church, made a profession of faith while they were young, were baptized, and then went off into the world and didn’t live as Christians. These parents are often in denial about the true spiritual state of their kids. If your kids abandon the church as adults, I am quite sure that they didn’t have a real faith to begin with. Don’t fool yourself and say, “Oh, they know the Lord, they’re just not walking with him now.”
Here’s a quick story: the year that I came to this church, 2014, I had applied to a number of churches to be their pastor. One of these churches pursued me and was interested in calling me to be their pastor. We visited the church a couple of times and I preached one sermon for the congregation. I had preached on a passage from Colossians 2, where Paul urges Christians to stay rooted in Christ. And I mentioned that the Bible teaches about the possibility of false conversions. Those who aren’t rooted in Christ fall away from him. They don’t have real faith. They aren’t really Christians. I was supposed to preach a second time before they offered me the job, but I didn’t feel that it was a good fit, so I called the head of the search committee to let him down. When I did that, he mentioned that one man didn’t like my sermon. I knew who this man was. He taught a Sunday school class. In it, he mentioned that his adult daughter wasn’t “walking with the Lord” and didn’t even want him to pray for her. But he also was quick to say he knew she was “born again,” so she was okay with God. If the Spirit of God resides in a person, that person will never reject prayer. I think this man had fooled himself because he couldn’t bear the thought that this daughter rejected Jesus.
The Bible calls those who don’t walk with Jesus unbelievers, not “backsliding Christians.” There are no perfect Christians in this life. And our faith can go through valleys, when we fall into sin. But a real Christian repents, again and again, and keeps turning to Jesus. If the Spirit of God dwells in you, he will bring you to Jesus. Your life will bear the fruit or the marks of a Christian.
And that’s what Jesus says about the fourth type of soil. This soil represents those “who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” These people are truly Christians. They hold fast to the word of God and they bear fruit “with patience.” They are in it for the long haul. They’re like the people who, seeking better health, stick with their diet and exercise program even when it’s hard, doesn’t seem like fun, or doesn’t seem to produce great results in the moment. Elsewhere, Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
It seems clear that Jesus commends only this last group of people. They are the ones who are part of his kingdom, who are forgiven of their sins, and who will live forever with Jesus. Again, Jesus doesn’t mean that these people earned those things. Salvation is a gift. But if it has been received, it will be put to use by those who have received it.
That’s more or less what Jesus says in the next paragraph, verses 16–18:
16 “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 17 For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light. 18 Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world.” He says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Jesus comes to reveal things as they truly are. He reveals our true spiritual condition. He exposes our sin, our rebellion against God. But he also illuminates the path to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He himself is that path. If you understand and believe that Jesus is the light of God, you would hang on to that light and shine it in all parts of your life. You wouldn’t hide it in a box or stick it under the bed, like an unwanted Christmas gift. People do that, of course, but these are not the people who realize who Jesus truly is.
Jesus says that even if you do that, his light will be revealed. “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.” You can try to cover Jesus up, or shut him up, but in the end he will prevail. He is in heaven now, but when he comes to Earth a second time, everyone will see that he is Lord, the true King. And he will bring everyone into judgment. There will be no hiding him, no silencing him on that day. All will come to light, including our sins and whether we have truly believed Jesus or not. If we do believe in Jesus, our sins will be covered. They have already been paid for when Jesus died on the cross almost two thousand years ago. But those who have rejected Jesus will have nowhere to hide. They will have to pay for their own sins.
Since that is so, Jesus says, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” If you receive God’s word and are faithful to what God has given you, he will entrust you with more. But the one who truly doesn’t have a relationship with God, “even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” I believe there will be many people on that last day who will be surprised by the judgment that Jesus makes on their faith. There will be people who say, “But Lord, I made a confession of faith. I prayed that prayer I was told to say. I was baptized. I went to church.” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matt. 7:23). Jesus is giving us a warning. We are hearing the word of God. What are we going to do with it?
Jesus makes it clear that hearing the word of God and believing that it is true leads to action. Those who belong to the family of God hear the word and do it. We see that in verses 19–21:
19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Jesus’ biological family wanted to see him. Instead of saying, “Oh, thanks for telling me. I’ll be right there,” Jesus takes the opportunity to define his real family. His real family consists of people who hear and do the word of God. Again, we don’t earn our way into the family of God by doing his word. Did you earn your way into your family? No, you were born into it. But no one is born biologically into God’s family. We must be reborn, which is a work that only God can do. But once we’re in the family, we’re supposed to act like it. And Jesus says that the people who are in his family show themselves by their actions. It’s easy to say you believe something. Act like it, Jesus says.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, how do we respond?
I simply ask three questions. One, is there room in your life for the word of God? Two, are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Three, are you acting according to God’s word?
Is there room in your life for God’s word? Are you listening intently now? Are you reading the Bible? Are you studying it to make sure you understand what you’ve read? There are many things that will crowd your life so that you don’t read the Bible. There are many concerns that we have. We’re worried about our family, our health, our job. Don’t let these things choke out the word of God. There are many pleasurable things to do, and not all of them are wrong. Don’t let these things take up all your time so you have no room for God’s word in your life. Trials will come, and you may doubt God’s word, or temptations may come, and you may not want to hear from God because you know he will correct you. But this is a mistake. We need to run to the one who can correct us, forgive us, and heal us.
Make sure there is room for God’s word in your life. You can do this in many ways. Reading the Bible regularly is the best way. I recommend getting a study Bible like the ESV Study Bible and reading systematically. We have Bible plans available here and on our website (wbcommunity.org/bible). You can read through the Bible in a year. But if that’s too fast of a pace, do it in two years. You can also listen to the Bible. There are different apps you can use. Christianaudio.com has an app and you can find cheap recordings of the Bible to purchase. You can read alone or with your family. One of my only New Year’s resolutions was to have a regular time of worship as a family. So, three times this week we read a Psalm, sang a song or hymn, read a question and answer out of a catechism, and prayed. It was quick—maybe 10 minutes—but over a long time, that practice will help mold and shape us as a family. Ten extra minutes of exercise every day adds up to big changes over a long period of time. Likewise, our daily diet affects our health. You are what you eat, and we cannot be better than what we put inside ourselves.
Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian and a pastor in Massachusetts, made several resolutions when he was a young man. Most of them involved actions and attitudes. But one of them was this: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” Resolve to study the Bible.
Are you letting the light of Jesus shine into every area of your life? Do you let God speak into area of your life? Do you let him expose your sins, the ways you are not doing life according to his terms? Or do you try to silence God and cover up his light? You can do this for a time, but in the end Jesus’ light will shine. His voice will roar. It is better to respond now so that he can heal you. If you are not yet a Christian indeed, I would love to talk to you about what it would look like to follow Jesus. I urge you to let God’s word and light into your life.
Are you acting according to God’s word? We all fail to do perfectly according to God’s word. But are you trying? Are you acting on what you know? It’s not enough to be hearers of God’s word. It’s not enough to nod our heads and say, “Yes, that’s right.” We must act.
Jesus’ brother, James provides a great commentary on today’s passage. This is James 1:16–25:
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- This comes from Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). ↑
- https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards. ↑
What does it look like to respond rightly to Jesus? What does it look like to believe in him? Jesus teaches a parable about four types of responses to his message. Find out what it looks like to be a real Christian. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, on Luke 8:4–21, on January 6, 2019.
Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.
Jesus was born in the middle of an ongoing war. Find out the real meaning of Christmas by turning to Revelation 12. This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 23, 2018.
Jesus divides people into two groups: those who produce good fruit by listening to his words, and those who produce bad fruit by refusing to hear him and do what he says. People in the first group build their houses on the solid ground, but those in the second group are like those who build a house without a foundation. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:43-49.
Jesus tells his disciples to “judge not.” What does this mean? How are we not to judge? Does this mean we don’t make moral evaluations? Find out by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on October 14, 2018.
Jesus challenges the world’s priorities and values by saying that the poor, hungry, sorrowful, and hated are blessed, while the rich, full, laughing, popular people are to be pitied. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:17-26, which includes the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.”
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus chose twelve disciples to follow him, witness his acts and teaching, and to be his representatives. Who did he pick? A surprising group of men. Find out why this matters by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on September 23, 2018.
Our younger son, Simon, started playing soccer this fall. He’s only 6 years old and he’s playing in a league of 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds. He had his second game yesterday and it’s interesting to see how, even at that young age, different kids have different athletic abilities. Some are bigger and some quite small. Some are faster than others and some are more coordinated. Some have a good sense of the game, where the ball is going and where it needs to go.
I don’t know how these kids are assigned to different teams. But it would be pretty easy to pick which kids you’d want on your team. There was one kid yesterday, on the other team, who could dribble through traffic and who scored two goals—one with the right foot, and one with the left. I’d pick that kid first if I were building a team.
Did you ever have that experience as a kid when captains were picking teams to play a sport? Maybe you were the one who did the picking. You know how this goes: all the people who want to play are lined up and two people take turns picking these players to be on their team. Usually, the first choices are obvious. The fast, coordinated, strong players are picked first. If you’re playing basketball, you’d pick the tall people quickly. Then you pick the average players. Eventually, you pick the people who look like they couldn’t run if they were under cooked eggs. Maybe you were always the last one picked and this whole idea brings traumatic memories to mind.
But imagine for a moment that you were building your own professional sports team. Imagine you could build your own Dream Team of the very best players in that sport. Money is not an issue here, and there’s no salary cap. Most of your picks would be pretty obvious ones. You’d pick the fastest, strongest, most coordinated, winningest athletes.
Now, imagine you were building a company from scratch. Let’s say this is some kind of tech company. Who would you want on your team? You’d want the genius computer whizzes. You’d want the best designers, the best financial officers, the best marketing guys. You’d want people who could design a product, make a product, sell the product, manage the money, and manage the personnel. You’d want the smartest, the best educated, the most creative.
Imagine you were a political leader, and you’re assembling your cabinet. Who would you want? You also would want the smartest and best educated people. But you would want other people, people who were connected, people who were powerful, people who could get things done. You’d want public policy wonks and power brokers, ideas people and influence people.
Now imagine that you’re building something far more important than a sports team, a company, or even a nation. Imagine that you’re going to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Let’s say that you happen to be God, and you come to Earth and you want to pick a dozen guys who will witness the things you do and say, who will train with you, and who will carry on your work after you’ve gone back to heaven. Who would you pick? You’d pick the religious leaders, right? You know, the people who know the Bible the best. Or you’d pick powerful people, like kings and princes. Maybe you’d want some rich people, and you always need a few smart, egghead types. You’d want people who are calm-headed, even-keeled, not people who act rashly, right? So, who would you pick?
Well, those are very hypothetical situations. The bad news is that none of us will be owners of professional sports teams or Fortune 500 companies. I’m pretty not one of us is going to be president or governor. But there is good news: none of us is God. And when it comes to that last situation, it’s not so hypothetical. God did come to Earth and he did pick a dozen men to witness what he did and said, and they did go on to tell other people about this God. But the men God picked were not the kind of guys that you or I would likely pick. And that’s another thing about Jesus that is stunning.
Today, we’re continuing our series through the Gospel of Luke, and we’re going to focus only on five verses. In these verses, we see that Jesus, who is still toward the beginning of his public ministry, is going pray and then choose twelve men out of his larger number of followers to be his apostles, his specially-commissioned messengers. And, suffice it to say, the twelve men are not the most powerful, most influential, or even the smartest men there are. But God knows what he’s doing, and he has a surprising way of doing things.
So, without further ado, let’s read Luke 6:12–16:
12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
This passage is short, and if you don’t know who Jesus is and what he came to do, you wouldn’t understand the significance of this passage. So, I’ll give us some context.
We’ve already seen in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is unique. He is no ordinary man. He had a conception unlike anyone: he was conceived in a virgin, without sex. Miraculously, the Holy Spirit caused Mary to be pregnant. And even before that time, we have strong clues that Jesus won’t simply be a miraculously-conceived man. The angel Gabriel told Mary, “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). And even before this, the prophet Isaiah foretold of a time when it would be announced, “For unto us a child is born . . . and his name shall be called . . . Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). How could a child be born who is called “Mighty God”? How can God be born a child?
Well, that’s one of the greatest claims that Christianity makes. Jesus is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe. And over two thousand years ago, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, the Son of God became a human being, first as an embryo, then a baby, then a child, then a man. And he did this without ceasing to be God. It’s a bit hard to grasp that Jesus is both God and man. We say that he’s one person with two natures, one divine and one human. This is one of the hardest things about Christianity to grasp, along with the Trinity. Just as we believe that there is one God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we believe that Jesus is both God and man.
We believe that because it’s revealed in the Bible, and we believe that the Bible is God’s written word. Already in the Gospel of Luke, we’ve had some hints that Jesus is God. Gabriel said he was the Son of God, and Jesus claims to forgive sins—sins that were not committed directly against the man Jesus. When Jesus makes this claim, some of the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). And that’s the point; Jesus is God. We’ll get other hints as we go through Luke. One of the clearest passages in Scripture that says that Jesus is God is the beginning of John’s Gospel, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The “Word” here is the Son of God, Jesus. And he is somehow both with God and is God. He is God—the Son of God—and he was with the Father from what is known as eternity past.
What’s interesting here is that Jesus prays to God—to God the Father, more specifically—before he chooses twelve men who will serve as his apostles. We may wonder why Jesus has to pray at all. If he’s God, can’t he just go ahead and pick these men? Doesn’t he know who he’s supposed to choose? And even if he has to pray, why does he pray all through the night?
The answer is that though Jesus is God, he lived his life primarily as a man. He never stopped being God, but he didn’t rely on his divine attributes to go through life. Every once in a while, he could call on his divine powers to heal and to forgive and to know things that ordinary people don’t know. But most of the time, he lived as a man, using the same resources that are available to us all, things like reading Scripture and praying. The reason why Jesus became a man was to fulfill God’s design for humanity. He came to live the perfect human life, because no one else has. We were made to love God and represent him and worship him and obey him. But we don’t do any of these things well or often, and certainly not perfectly. So, Jesus comes to live the perfect human life, to be the true image of God. That’s one of the reasons why he came.
Jesus came to do the will of his Father (John 6:38). The man Jesus relied completely on the Father during his time on Earth. As the perfectly obedient Son of God, Jesus spent time with his Father in prayer. When he was about to do something important, he prayed. The man Jesus wanted to talk to God the Father. He wanted to know the Father’s will.
So, we see Jesus praying on a mountain all through the night. Perhaps he went up a mountain simply to get away from the crowds that were following him. Perhaps we’re supposed to see echoes of Moses meeting with God on Mount Sinai. But the important thing is Jesus is praying before making an important decision. He’s about to choose twelve men who will be spend the next two or three years with him, men who will go on to tell the world about Jesus. To but it bluntly, Jesus couldn’t afford to screw this choice up. He had to get the right men, the ones God wanted.
So, Jesus prays throughout the night. And when it was day, Jesus calls his disciples to himself. This must be a larger group of Jesus’ followers. Literally, a disciple is a student. There were people who wanted to learn from Jesus. And out of this larger group of people, Jesus chooses twelve men, whom he named apostles.
The word apostle means someone who is sent, usually to be a messenger. The apostles are later said to be people who were with Jesus the whole time of his pubic ministry and who saw him after he later rose from the grave (Acts 1:21–22). Jesus’ life, his miracles, his teachings, and, later, his death and resurrection are so important that there must be witnesses, people who could go to the world and tell what they saw Jesus do.
Before we look at who these men are, we should ask an important question: why twelve? Why does Jesus choose twelve? Why not ten or fifteen? Jesus chooses twelve apostles to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. We know that because toward the end of Luke’s Gospel, he’ll say this to his disciples:
28 You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, 30 that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28–30).
Jesus is restoring, renewing, and recreating Israel, the people of God. This reminds us slightly of the book of Numbers, when Moses and Israel were still at Sinai. At Mount Sinai, God told Moses to take a census of the people of Israel. God told Moses that he would be assisted by one man from every tribe (Num. 1:1–44). Something similar is happening here. That’s why at the beginning of the book of Acts, when there are only eleven apostles, they must name a twelfth apostle. Jesus is rebuilding Israel. He will use these unlikely men to gather the true Israel, the people of faith.
Now, let’s take a look at who these apostles are. We’ve already met some of them in Luke 5. The list begins with four fishermen. Simon is better known as Peter, a name that Jesus gives him. He is the leader of the group. He’s often bold, even acting rashly. When Jesus is later arrested, he takes a sword and cuts off a soldier’s ear (John 18:10). Yet after that bold move, he is cowardly and denies knowing Jesus so he can save his life (Luke 22:54–62).
Simon’s brother, Andrew, is not as prominent among the disciples. He was one of Jesus’ earliest followers. In John’s Gospel, we see that he introduced Simon to Jesus (John 1:40–42). That’s when Jesus gives Simon the name Peter, which means “rock.”
The next two disciples are another pair of brothers and fishermen, James and John. They were partners with Peter and Andrew. It’s possible that they were cousins of Jesus (compare John 19:25 with Matt. 27:56 and Mark 15:40). James and John were part of the inner circle of disciples, along with Peter. John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20), the one who wrote the Gospel of John and John’s letters and the book of Revelation. James and John were known as the “sons of thunder,” probably because of episodes like one we’ll see later in Luke. This is Luke 9:51–54:
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Jewish people looked down on Samaritans. Add to that the fact that the people in this village didn’t receive Jesus, and you can see why James and John might be a bit put out. They were probably thinking of the good old days of the prophet Elijah, when he would call fire to come down from heaven to consume God’s enemies (see 1 Kgs. 18:20–40; 2 Kgs. 1). But Jesus rebukes them (verse 55).
We don’t know a lot about the next disciples. Philip was from Bethsaida, just like Peter and the other fishermen. He invited his friend Nathaniel to meet Jesus (John 1:45–46). Bartholomew is probably the same man as Nathaniel, since we only read about Nathaniel in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew appears in the other Gospels.
Matthew is the same person as Levi, the tax collector we met in Luke 5:27–32. Tax collectors were known as traitors since they served the Roman Empire, the superpower of the day that had power of Israel. They were also known as being dishonest.
Thomas is most famous for doubting that Jesus rose from the grave (John 20:24–25). But when he saw the risen Jesus, he made the great confession, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). He had also said he was willing to die with Jesus (John 11:16).
We know very little about James the Son of Alphaeus. The same is true of Simon, who was also called the Zealot. Some have assumed that he was a revolutionary, part of a group of people who were against the Roman Empire. But this group of Zealots didn’t emerge until a few decades later and it’s just as possible that Simon was zealous for the Jewish law. We also don’t know much about Judas the son of James. He’s called Thaddeus by Matthew and Mark (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18). John simply refers to him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” so we don’t confuse him with the more famous Judas (John 14:22).
And that brings us to Judas Iscariot. He was the treasurer of the apostles, handling their money. But we’re told by John that he helped himself to that money (John 12:4–6). Judas is infamous for betraying Jesus, telling the Jewish religious leaders who hated Jesus how they could arrest him away from the crowds. That’s why Luke says that Judas “became a traitor.” Jesus’ arrest led to his trial and death. After Judas had realized what he did, he regretted his actions and gave back the money that he was paid to betray Jesus. But he couldn’t live with what he did, so he hanged himself (Matt. 27:3–10).
These are the men that God led Jesus to choose. There were no Bible scholars, no religious leaders, no politicians, no particularly wealthy men in the bunch. In most ways, these men were thoroughly unimpressive.
So, why does God choose these men? We’re never told explicitly. But the Bible states that God does as he pleases, that his will is perfect, and that he governs everything that happens. So, we trust he has good reasons for what he does.
We also know something else: God often chooses the weak to shame the strong and the foolish (in the world’s eyes) to shame those who are supposedly wise.
Consider this passage by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18–31:
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Paul is saying that God is truly wise, but God’s perfect wisdom is not what the world regards as wise. In the eyes of most people, what God does doesn’t make sense. At the time of Jesus, it didn’t make sense that God would become man and die on a cross. That’s because Jews knew that those who died in that way were cursed by God. Gentiles knew the cross was for enemies of the state, and the whole idea that there’s one true God who became man, died, and rose from the grave didn’t make sense to them.
But God truly knows what he’s doing. Paul says that Jews demand signs, or miracles. What greater miracle is there than for God to be come man and then rise from the grave after dying? Paul says Greeks seek wisdom. What wiser way to take care of the problem of sin, our rebellion against God, than for Jesus to bear that sin himself, absorbing the punishment that we deserve, so that all who are united to him can be forgiven?
God shows his wisdom by using unlikely people, the average person, the weak, the poor. God doesn’t need to use the powerful, the rich, the smartest guys in the room. That’s because God has infinite power, and he can do what he wants in spite of our limitations. If God were picking a team, he might pick all the chubby kids with two left feet. He does this so that he can take all the credit for his works. We cannot boast because God is the hero of the story. We are only recipients of God’s grace.
The fact that God used very ordinary men to build the church is something of a miracle. In fact, we might even say it’s proof that Christianity is the true religion. I’m taking a course on apologetics now. Apologetics is basically the study of why Christianity is true. The word comes from the Greek word apologia, which can mean “defense” or “reason.” The idea comes from 1 Peter 3:15, which says, “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” The word reason is a translation of apologia.
At any rate, I’ve been studying apologetics, including the history of how people have defended the faith against objections and how they have given reasons why people should put their trust in Jesus. And some of the older apologists said that the truth of Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that God grew the church out of a small group of common men. This is what one preacher, John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), said
How many did the Church win over? Not two, or ten, or twenty, or a hundred, but almost every man living under the sun. With whose help did it win them over? With the help of eleven men. And these men were unlettered, ignorant, ineloquent, undistinguished, and poor. They could not rely on the fame of their homelands, on any abundance of wealth, or strength of body, or glorious reputation, or illustrious ancestry. They were neither forceful nor clever in speech; they could make no parade of knowledge. They were fishermen and tentmakers, men of a foreign tongue. They did not speak the same language as those whom they won over to the faith. Their speech—I mean Hebrew—was strange and different from all others. But it was with the help of these men that Christ founded this Church which reaches from one end of the world to the other.
The point is that unless God were working through these ordinary men, there’s no way a new religious movement could have spread throughout the world. These men didn’t have any political power or wealth. Judaism was tolerated by the Roman Empire, but Christianity was something new, something not protected by law. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar, the emperor, is not. This challenged the Roman Empire. Christians refused to bow down to the emperor and worship him or any of the other false gods in the Empire. To become a Christian was to go against Rome and the old order of Judaism. You wouldn’t do this, and you wouldn’t succeed if you did, unless God were behind it.
What’s amazing is that Jesus doesn’t just choose some ordinary men. He chooses a man who will be a traitor. The fact that Judas sold Jesus out wasn’t something that surprised God. God knew this all along. He always knows everything. Yet God chose Judas. I suppose someone had to betray Jesus so that he would die. One of the things the Bible says is that God has a plan for everything and that people are responsible for their actions. We see this most clearly at the cross (Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). The fact that Judas was chosen was not an accident. Judas was responsible for his sin, but he was part of God’s plan.
And Jesus’ death was not an accident. Yes, people didn’t believe him and hated him, and that’s part of why he died. But ultimately, Jesus’ death was God’s plan to rescue his people from their sin. Earlier I said that Jesus came in part to live a perfect life, thus fulfilling God’s plans for humanity. The other reason why he came was to pay the penalty for our sin. Our sin is so offensive to God and so destructive to his creation that he must remove it. God is a perfect judge who sees all the evidence, and he must punish sin. Jesus’ death is the way that God punishes sins without destroying sinners.
Jesus prayed before choosing his disciples. He prayed before Peter made the great confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Luke 9:18–20). He prayed before he was transfigured, revealing his divine glory to Peter, James, and John (Luke 9:28–29). And he wrestled in prayer on the night he was arrested, the night before he died, because he knew that he was about to experience hell on earth (Luke 22:39–46). Jesus prayed for our benefit. And he still prays for us. He came and lived the perfect life for us and he died for us. If you put your trust in Jesus, you are freed from condemnation and the fear of death, you are forgiven, and you are a child of God.
So, what do we do with this passage? I think we should see a few things.
One, the fact that Jesus chooses the weak and the poor and the foolish should give us hope. We don’t have to be the world’s smartest, most powerful, and most talented people in order to know God. What we really need is to realize our need for salvation. When we realize our spiritual poverty and weakness, we’re in a place where we can come to Jesus. God chose twelve foolish men to be Jesus’ disciple, and God chose a vast amount of foolish people to be Christians. That may injure our pride, but it should give us hope.
Two, the fact that the disciples often made mistakes after Jesus called them should give us hope. Even Peter, who denied knowing Jesus, was forgiven. I think it’s possible that even Judas could have been forgiven, but he didn’t understand that. The difference between Judas and Peter is that one couldn’t see any hope. No matter what we’ve done, we can run to Jesus for forgiveness.
Three, Jesus prayed. He regularly spent time with his Father in heaven. And we should pray like Jesus. But we should remember that when we pray, God may not give us what we want. God doesn’t always give us easy answers. But he always gives us what we need. Remember, God led Jesus to pick Judas. Jesus had to go through great pain and suffering. If we trust Jesus, we don’t have to experience the punishment that he endured on the cross. But we may experience quite a bit of pain and suffering. Yet whatever trials we face are for our good and they are not the final chapter in the story. The final chapter for God’s people is eternal life in a restored, renewed, recreated world, a life in Paradise with God.
So, let us be thankful. Let us boast in Jesus and trust in him. And let us pray like him.
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, vol. 1, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 544. Bock asserts that they are cousins, though I don’t think this as clear as he insists. ↑
- John Chrysostom, A Demonstration against the Pagans that Christ Is God 12.9, in William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., Christian Apologetics Past and Present: A Primary Source Reader, to 1500, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 199. ↑
How are you feeling today? Do you feel well rested? In general, does your life feel at rest, or do you feel anxious? Do you feel at peace or ill at ease in this world?
Today we’re picking up our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, after taking a six-month break. If you weren’t here months ago, you can catch up on this series by visiting wbcommunity.org/luke. This is a good time to get to know the true Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible.
This is what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke is writing this biography of Jesus to provide an orderly account of the story of Jesus. He says his writing is based on what he has received from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke is writing history, but it’s a theological history. He wants us to know what God has done in and through Jesus.
Luke tells us that Jesus had supernatural origins. His miraculous conception by a virgin was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Right at the beginning of this story, we’re told that Jesus is more than just a man. Gabriel tells Mary,
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
Luke tells us that Jesus grew and he gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus at age 12. When he is fully grown, Jesus is baptized, an event that begins his public ministry. When he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and the voice of God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). There are echoes here of the beginning of the Bible. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over these waters, where the Word of God is present. Just as God created a universe out of nothing, he has created a new man out of “nothing” (a virgin’s womb). Just as God pronounced a blessing over the first creation, calling it “very good,” God pronounces a blessing over this new creation. God has stepped into the universe that he has made and Jesus, the God-man, will fix what is broken in the first creation.
He does this in part by withstanding the devil’s temptations. Luke tells us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when Satan tempted him. Jesus stands up to Satan’s attacks by quoting Scripture back to him. Jesus is the only one who doesn’t give in to evil.
Then we see Jesus begin his public ministry. He does this by teaching and by healing. He teaches in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, telling those who are gathered that he fulfills the Old Testament. But he is not well received. We see that Jesus’ teaching is divisive, and he gets run out of his hometown.
Jesus heals people who had various diseases and he heals people who were under the influence of unclean spirits, or demons. This shows that Jesus attacks the results of evil in the world and evil itself. According to the Bible, all bad things in the world are the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of sin in the world. Angels and people have rebelled against God, and as a result, God has given the world over to things like diseases and death. But God hasn’t given up on the world. Jesus’ becoming a man is God’s rescue mission to save a lost world. And Jesus’ miracles indicate that he has the power to fix what is broken.
We also have seen Jesus call his first disciples and get into various controversies with some of the religious leaders in his day. These are usually the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that was devoted to a strict interpretation of the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus hung out with people who were regarded as particularly sinful. This was controversial. But he called them to a new way of life, a better life. And Jesus even claims that he has the power to forgive sins.
Today, as we begin Luke 6, we see those controversies continue. We’ll see two controversies over the Sabbath. Let’s first read Luke 6:1–5:
1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
To understand what’s happening here, we need to understand what the Bible says about the Sabbath. So, let’s take a quick tour of what the Old Testament says about the Sabbath.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, we see God creates, or orders and arranges, his creation. Over six days, God establishes realms of sky and sea and land and he fills them. There are a lot of different views on whether those days are twenty-four periods or longer ages, or if the week is analogous, but not exactly equivalent, to our week. But we won’t get into that today. What we do want to see is that on the seventh day, God rests. This is Genesis 2:1–3:
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
This doesn’t mean that God was really tired from those six days and need a break. It meant that his work of creating and arranging was done. God had established the world to be his temple, a theater for his glory, and he was done. He could now sit on his throne, as it were. The drama of the Bible’s big story could now begin.
This seventh day of rest established a pattern for Israel. In fact, God commands Israel to rest on every seventh day in honor of the pattern he established at creation. The Sabbath is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. This is the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:8–11:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The word “Sabbath” basically means rest. It was also a day of worship, a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Holy means “distinct, withheld from ordinary use, treated with special care,” the opposite of “profane” or “common.” The seventh day was a “Sabbath to the Lord,” a day that belonged to God (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15). The Israelites were supposed to take a break from their regular work. This taught them to trust in God’s provision and to realize that they were not in control of time.
The Sabbath reminded the Israelites both of creation and salvation. Exodus 20 mentions creation. The Ten Commandments are also given in Deuteronomy 5. There, we are told another reason why Israel should observe the Sabbath: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he created a new people, a people who could rest, instead of working as slaves. The Sabbath is the link between creation and salvation.
The Sabbath was so important that it was a sign of the covenant (Exod. 31:12–17; Ezek. 20:12), just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 9:12–17), and circumcision was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). We may not understand the word “covenant” very well, but it’s sort of like a treaty. It’s similar to a marriage contract. It’s something that binds two parties together and sets the terms for that relationship. In this case, the covenant was how God would relate to his people and how they would relate to him. It spelled out what was expected of God’s people. The Ten Commandments were like the founding principles of Israel, something similar to the Bill of Rights. But instead of rights, the Ten Commandments told Israel what God expected of them.
Observing the Sabbath was so important that the punishment for breaking it was death (Exod. 31:14–15; see the story in Num. 15:32–36). Breaking the Sabbath was associated with idolatry, the worship of false gods (Lev. 19:3–4; Ezek. 20:16–24). It seems that breaking the Sabbath was one of the reasons why Israel went into exile (2 Chron. 36:21; Jer. 17:19–27; 25:11–12; Ezek. 20:12–24). After Israel returned from exile, the Sabbath was one of the concerns of Nehemiah.
By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws. Keeping the Sabbath had become synonymous with Judaism. It set Jews apart from the people of other nations and religions. On the Sabbath day, Jews met in synagogues for prayer and Scripture readings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws that accumulated over time, forbade thirty-nine activities on the Sabbath day.
So, that’s a quick study of the Sabbath in the Old Testament.
Now, let’s go back to Luke 6:1–5. Jesus and his disciples were going through a field on the Sabbath. They took some grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff, and ate. This is hardly work, but according to strict Jewish interpretations of the law, this violated the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. This is a serious charge. Yet Jesus doesn’t answer directly. As he often does, he asks a question. He reminds them of a story from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 21:1–6). The story was about David, the greatest king of Israel. Before David became king, was on the run from Saul, the first king of Israel, who was jealous of David and who wanted to kill him. David had to flee from Saul just to stay alive. At one point, David and his men were so hungry that they ate the bread of the Presence, which was bread that was in the tabernacle, the holy place where God dwelled among Israel. This bread was holy. It symbolized Israel eating in God’s presence. It was bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Now, Jesus brings this up and challenges the Pharisees to say that David was wrong. The implication is that David didn’t do wrong, and just as David didn’t do anything wrong by eating that bread, because he was hungry, Jesus and his disciples didn’t do anything wrong by eating some grain that they “worked” for on the Sabbath.
Jesus doesn’t deny that there might have been some violation of the Sabbath, at least according to the way the Pharisees understood the law. Instead, he seems to say that when two principles clash, some things are more important than others. David and his men were starving. So, the priest decided it was okay to let them eat holy bread. It was more important to support these men than to uphold laws regarding the bread. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and need some sustenance. The grain was there for the plucking. In Mark’s telling of this passage, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was supposed to help people, not hurt them.
The Sabbath was for the benefit of the Israelites. It told them to rest in God’s provision, to trust in him. It wouldn’t make sense for Sabbath observance to put them in harm’s way. And there must have been some understanding of this. Sometimes, two laws clash, even two biblical laws. Israelite boys were supposed to be circumcised on the eight day. If a boy was born on a Sabbath, he would have to be circumcised on the following Sabbath day. Either that doesn’t count as work, or it does and you violate the Sabbath commandment, or you circumcise the boy on the seventh or ninth day, thus violating another commandment. Sometimes, laws must bend. What’s important in those cases is upholding the spirit of the law.
Here’s an example we can relate to: We know that lying is wrong. But what if you’re living in Europe in the early 1940s, you’re hiding Jewish people in your attic or your basement, and Nazis come to your door, asking if any Jews are there. What do you do? Do you lie and save lives, or do you tell the truth and let them be led to slaughter? I know what I would do.
Mature Christian thinking understands this. There are times when we feel like two moral principles are clashing against each other, and we have to find ways to accommodate the spirit of both of those principles. For example, we’re called to welcome the sinner, but we have to have safeguards against the destructive power of sin. An abusive person can be forgiven and yet there can still be consequences for that person’s behavior.
In this passage, however, Jesus does something besides suggesting that laws can bend. He says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. “Lord” could be used to address people of authority, but it was also the way God’s name, Yahweh, was translated from Hebrew into Greek. And Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. That sounds like he’s making a claim to be God. After all, the Sabbath was the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10). Jesus is saying it’s his. He owns the Sabbath. And if it’s his, he can do what he wants with it. This should have given the Pharisees pause. Jesus is coming quite close to saying he’s God.
Let’s look at the next paragraph, Luke 6:6–11.
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It’s another Sunday, not necessarily the very next one. The Gospel writers weren’t terribly concerned about precise chronology. Luke (and Matthew in Matthew 12 and Mark in Mark 2) wants us to see the connections between these two Sabbaths. On this one, Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There happens to be a man with a withered hand there. His hand must have been crippled, his muscles atrophied. Perhaps he had suffered some kind of accident in the past, or perhaps he had a birth defect. The Pharisees and the scribes, the strict religious leaders of the day who were so concerned about how to follow the Old Testament law, carefully watched what Jesus would do. They were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They would have loved to have some dirt on him, to put him on trial and put an end to him.
Before I go on, notice the irony. This is a day of a rest, a day of worship. And what do the religious leaders do? They work at trying to capture Jesus in some violation. They aren’t thinking about God; no, they are looking for a way to trip Jesus up. Who are the ones violating the Sabbath? And who is the one who is maintaining the spirit of the law?
Jesus asks the crippled man to come to him, and then he asks a rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Who could argue with that? Later in Luke’s Gospel, during another Sabbath controversy, Jesus will ask, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5). Wouldn’t you help a person or even an animal that was in trouble, even if it were on a Sabbath?
Confident that no one will argue against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus then asks the man to stretch out his hand. The man does, and when he does, his hand was healed. The man listens to Jesus’ voice, does what Jesus tells him to do, and then finds healing. We could say the man had faith that Jesus could heal him, he responded, and Jesus healed him.
One thing we can learn from this episode is that the Sabbath was intended for the good of humanity. It is better to do good than to allow one to suffer.
But think about this: the man with the withered hand was not in dire need of healing. Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to heal him, but Jesus intentionally heals him on the Sabbath, even though this wasn’t an emergency. In healing on the Sabbath, he was making a point. To understand the point, we need to think about the relationship between sin and Sabbath. In the Gospels, healing is a physical symbol of the salvation that Jesus offers. All physical problems come from sin, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why anyone gets sick is because the world is tainted by sin, a powerful force of rebellion that entered into the world when the first human beings decided not to trust and obey God. Sin violated the first Sabbath.
Think back to the original Sabbath, the one in Genesis 2. There was nothing but peace and rest. The Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe was a taste of that peace and rest. It was almost a way of recapturing the original harmony of the world before sin corrupted it. But the Sabbath also pointed to one who would come, a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David. It pointed to the Prince of Peace, the only one who can bring rest, the only one who can restore us to harmony with God.
The four Gospels that we have in the Bible have similar material, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before these two Sabbath controversies that we’re reading about today, Jesus said,
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).
The fact that this saying of Jesus comes right before his actions on the Sabbath shows us that Jesus is the true Sabbath. He fulfills the Sabbath. He is one who gives us rest.
But how does Jesus do that?
In the Gospel of Luke, there are seven different Sabbaths. There were two in chapter 4 (Luke 4:16, 31) and now we’ve seen two in chapter 6. One more appears in chapter 13 (Luke 13:10) and another one comes in chapter 14 (Luke 14:1). I suppose there’s no accident that there are seven Sabbaths in Luke’s Gospel. Seven is the number of completion or perfection, and the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The seventh Sabbath in Luke is the one when Jesus was in the tomb, after he died on the cross. He was killed on Friday, the sixth day of the week, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, which began on Friday at sundown. He rested in the tomb on the seventh day of the week, after he completed his work. Remember, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work, at least in part, was to come and die for our sins. He completed that work in full when he died on the cross. There is nothing that you and I can do to pay for our sins. Our crimes against God are so great that only the death of the Son of God can pay for our sins. And we can have our sins paid for if we simply trust in Jesus. He asks us to stretch out our arm to him and if we do that, trusting that he alone can make us right with God, we are healed. No amount of law-keeping makes anyone more righteous. We can’t fix ourselves. The only way we can be healed is to rest from our striving to save ourselves and to let God save us. Only Jesus can remove our sin and make us right with God. Only Jesus can get us to heaven. Only Jesus can make us live with God forever.
After Jesus died on the sixth day and rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, he rose from the grave on the eighth day. Or, we might say that he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, a new era. For these reasons and others, I believe that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath for us, just as he fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul writes,
16 Therefore [because Jesus died for our sins and has given us new hearts—see Col. 2:6–15] let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16–17).
The Old Testament Sabbath was meant to point Israel to Jesus. It foreshadowed the rest that only he can give. But now that Jesus has come, we don’t need to keep the Sabbath in the way that Israel did. To keep the Sabbath today is to stop striving to save yourself and to start resting in the give of salvation that Jesus has given you.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first installment of a new creation. He established something new. His death inaugurated a new covenant. This new deal promises that God’s people will be forgiven of sin, they will have his law written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, and they will truly know him. Jesus’ resurrection also promises new life. We don’t feel completely at rest in this life. We struggle, and we die. But a day is coming when Jesus will return, when all who have trusted in him will be raised from the grave in bodies that can never die. At that time, God’s people will live with God forever in a recreated, or renewed world. They will experience perfect rest.
Again, we can experience some of that rest now, but we also look forward to the ultimate rest that will come when Jesus returns to Earth, when he establishes a new creation. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). That means we rest from trying to earn our salvation. But we must also work. Jesus said that God is always working (John 5:17). It’s not as though God stopped working on the original seventh day. He always upholds the universe. If God didn’t do that, things would cease to exist. So, even though we rest in one sense, we also continue to work. We don’t work to earn something from God, but we work because we are thankful, because we love God and he has given us work to do. So, we work and rest, and we urge other people to find rest in Jesus.
The Sabbath is a reminder that each person is spiritually restless and that the only rest available to satisfy our souls is offered by Jesus, who beckons the weary to come to him. Augustine understood this reality when he prayed to the Lord, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Nothing else in this world can give our restless souls rest. But in order to receive true rest, we must give up. We must stop working. We must trust that God will provide for us. We must realize that Jesus is our Boss, our Master, our King, and our Lord—the Lord of the Sabbath.
The religious leaders “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Matthew says, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). How do you respond to Jesus? If you’re not resting him, I urge you to do so now. If you don’t truly know Jesus as your Lord, I would love to talk with you. But for now, let’s pray.
- Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century. New American Commentary in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 87. ↑
- Nehemiah recalls the giving of the Sabbath in his prayer of confession (Neh. 9:14) and he states that no buying or selling should be done on the Sabbath (10:31). When he discovers that the Sabbath commandment was being broken, he confronted the leaders of the people and then made sure the gates of the city were shut on that holy day, so that no buying or selling of goods could be done (13:15–22). He likely did not want the people to be exiled again for their lack of observing this important commandment. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49. ↑
- Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
Jesus clashes with the religious leaders of his time on two Sabbath days. Find out how Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and gives us true rest. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:1-11, recorded on September 16, 2018.
Religion can be very controversial. I know that well, and I suppose there’s something within me that likes to address controversial topics, especially when they find their way into the public square. Well over five years ago, there was a controversy related to Barack Obama’s second inauguration, after he was reelected as president. Whoever organizes inaugurations had invited a rather mainstream evangelical pastor named Louis Giglio to give the benediction. Later, some people had discovered that Giglio actually believes what the Bible says about homosexuality, and that he once preached a message on Romans 1 and addressed that topic. So, Giglio was basically uninvited. A “liberal” pastor who doesn’t believe what the Bible says about homosexuality replaced him.
Now, I’m not going to preach on the issue of homosexuality this morning. That may or may not be a relief to you. But I remember watching something on TV when this controversy with Giglio emerged. One of MSNBC’s hosts, Lawrence O’Donnell, gave a commentary on this controversy. He noted that Giglio would be replaced with a pastor who doesn’t believe parts of the Bible, the same parts of the Bible that Obama doesn’t believe. And he suggested that we shouldn’t believe all of the Bible, and that no one really believes all that’s found in the Bible. I think O’Donnell would have been happy to ditch the Bible altogether.
But this is the part that really got me. Here he was, behind a desk with a closed Bible on it, one that he surely has not read in its entirety. And he said this:
This time, as it was last time for the first time in history, the book will be held by a First Lady who is a descendant of slaves. [He’s referring to Michelle Obama.] But the holy book she will be holding does not contain one word of God condemning slavery. Not one word. But that same book, which spends hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages condemning all sorts of things and couldn’t find one sentence to condemn slavery, does indeed find the space to repeatedly condemn gay people, as the now banished Louie Giglio said it does. And as the First Lady is holding that book for the President, sitting somewhere near them will be a pastor who the Inauguration Committee will make sure is much more adept at hiding what that book actually says than Louie Giglio was.
As someone who has actually read the Bible several times and someone who has studied it, I had to stop and think. Does the Bible contain no words that condemn slavery? Is that true?
Whether you agree with O’Donnell or not, I think we should step back and think about some questions, ones that we might not have good answers for right at the moment. We all know that slavery is wrong, but why is that so? Why is slavery wrong? Where did that idea come from? What societies were the first ones to forbid slavery? And, since we’re in a church, what does the Bible actually say about slavery?
Well, I hope to answer those questions, at least in part, today. And I’ll do that as we continue our study of 1 Timothy, which is a book in the New Testament of the Bible. If you’re joining us for the first time, we usually study a book of the Bible in its entirety, going passage by passage. Sometimes, a passage is a paragraph, or a whole chapter of the Bible. Today, I’m going to look at just two verses, 1 Timothy 6:1–2. And just to give us a little context, I’ll tell you this much: The book of 1 Timothy was written by the apostle Paul, a messenger of Jesus Christ and a man who started some churches throughout the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago. He wrote this letter to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. Paul had left Timothy to help a church in the city of Ephesus (in the western part of what is now known as Turkey). This church had its share of problems, and Paul wanted Timothy to 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” (1 Tim. 3:15).
In this part of the letter, Paul is telling Timothy how different groups of people should behave in the church. And, at the beginning of chapter 6, he talks about slaves. And this is what Paul says:
1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants [slaves] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved (1 Tim. 6:1–2).
It’s a bit jarring to read about slaves and masters, because it seems so foreign to our experience. That, and we know slavery is wrong. And what Paul tells Timothy doesn’t match our expectations. We might expect Paul to tell Timothy to contact his senators and representative, or start a petition at change.org, to put an end to slavery. But Paul doesn’t do that.
To understand why Paul says what he does, we have to understand slavery in context. Today, I’m going to give us three contexts in which we should understand slavery. The first is the context of the whole Bible.
“In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and he made human beings in his image and likeness, which means that we are unique in all of God’s creation. We alone are made to reflect what God is like, to display his glory, to rule over his creation by coming under his rule, to worship him, and to love and obey him as his children. What God made was good, and there was no hint of division, greed, or exploitation. If you knew nothing other than the first two chapters of the Bible, you would never imagine that such a thing as slavery could ever exist. Everything was peace and harmony.
But something changed. The first human beings didn’t trust God. They failed to obey him. They violated his commandment, deciding that they knew better than God. And the consequences have been horrific. Because human beings rebelled against a holy, perfect, righteous God, he could not allow that rebellion to go unchecked. So, he removed them from the sacred space of the garden of Eden, and he put a curse on all of creation. In a sense, he gave them over to their rebellion and let them go their own way. And when we reject God, who is the source of truth, beauty, goodness, and life, we find lies, ugliness, evil, and death. The reason why we’re at war with each other is because we’re first at war with God.
The first mention of slavery in the Bible comes in the context of a curse. In the story of Noah, after the flood has ended, his son Ham violates him. And Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:25). The New International Version says, “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
I’ll add this here: slavery was a universal institution in the ancient world. Every ancient society had slaves. From Egypt to Assyria to Babylon and far beyond, all ancient societies had slaves. While the Bible never commands people to enslave others, it does assume that the practice exists. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, after all.
So, the Bible talks about creation and the entrance of sin into the world, which we call the fall. And the fall is the reason why anything bad, including slavery, exists. The next part of the story is called redemption, which I will come back to later. The final part of the Bible’s story is restoration, when God makes everything right in the universe. And while we only get glimpses of what a renewed and restored world will be like, there is no hint of slavery there. That is because there will be no sin in that perfect world.
The second context in which we should understand slavery is slavery in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament. As I said, slavery was universal. It existed for a long time before the time of Jesus. It was found in ancient Greece and later in the Roman Empire. There are several things to know about slavery in the Roman Empire. One, there were a lot of slaves. Exact figures are hard to come by in the ancient world. One estimate I read was, “Slaves accounted for something like 2 to 3 million of the 7.5 million inhabitants of Italy.” That same author, James Jeffers, says, “Slaves were probably closer to 10 percent of the population elsewhere in the Empire.” That’s a low estimate. Another author says, “Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and [the] peninsula [of] Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries A.D. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage.” Let’s assume the truth is somewhere in between those figures. Perhaps 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire were at any given time slaves and many more were freed.
Two, people could become slaves in a few different ways. Some people sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts. That may sound odd, but as recently as the mid-nineteenth century, people could go to prison for debts. When I was a doctoral student in music, I studied the life of Richard Wagner, the famous German composer, and I read that he spent time in debtor’s prison. There was nothing like bankruptcy then. In the ancient world, you could work off your debts through slavery. People could also become slaves by being captured by slavers, or because they were children of slaves, or because they had been abandoned by their parents and raised to become slaves. More likely, people became slaves because they were conquered by the Roman Empire. As the Roman Empire expanded, prisoners of war became slaves.
Three, slavery in the Roman Empire was much different than what we think of when we think of slavery. Slavery wasn’t based on skin color. I don’t like using the word “race” because there is only one human race, but slavery then wasn’t based on race. Masters and slaves often had the same ethnicity. In fact, that’s true of much of slavery in the world. In the Roman Empire, slaves could have certain rights. They could earn money and they could eventually buy their freedom. If they had rich masters, they might live better than the poor free people. They were often freed, usually at a relatively young age; we don’t have evidence of people dying as slaves.
Four, the way slaves were treated could vary greatly. The slaves with arguably the worst lives were those who were used for sex. Many slaves worked in mines, which apparently was the most physically demanding and miserable job. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who worked in the mines, and sometimes they were worked to death. The largest group of slaves were farmers. Slaves could also be domestic servants, artisans, artists, and managers of their masters’ businesses. I’m sure a slave’s quality of life largely depended on his or her role.
All of that is to say that slavery was different than what we think of when we imagine slavery. No one would argue that slavery was a good thing, but slavery did not necessarily mean a person was worked to death or degraded. But the reality is that could happen, too. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations.
The final context I want us to see slavery in is the context of the New Testament. When we read Paul’s words, it’s hard for us to understand why he wouldn’t speak out more against slavery. Well, we should realize one thing: O’Donnell was wrong. (Unless we read the Bible as fundamentalists, which is something that unbelievers, ironically, tend to do.) There are some words against slavery in the Bible. At the beginning of 1 Timothy, Paul says that the Old Testament law can be used to reveal those who are “lawless and disobedient,” those who are “ungodly and sinners” (1 Tim. 1:8). He then gives a vice list, and he includes “enslavers” among the list of “sinners” (1 Tim. 1:10). So, Paul quite clearly says it’s wrong to capture people and force them to be slaves.
Paul also wrote a short letter to a slave owner, a man named Philemon. Philemon was a Christian, and he had a slave named Onesimus. We don’t know why, but Onesimus ended up with Paul. Many assume Onesimus ran away from his master, but we don’t know the whole backstory. At any rate, Paul writes to Philemon to encourage him to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not a slave. Paul could have used his apostolic authority to command Philemon to let Onesimus go. He had the ability to do that. He even says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philem. 8–9). Instead of commanding Philemon, he appeals to theology. He reminds Philemon that he, Paul, is (quite literally) “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (verse 9) and he says that he has become like a father to Onesimus. He tells Philemon that he is sending Onesimus, “my very heart,” back to him. He would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, because Onesimus served Paul while Paul was in prison. But Paul knows it is right to send Onesimus back, “in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord” (verse 14).
And here’s the main point: Paul says, “For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant [slave] but more than a bondservant [slave], as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philem. 15–16). Instead of treating Onesimus as a slave, Philemon should treat him as a brother, because that’s what he is—a brother in Christ.
Paul concludes by telling Philemon that he should receive Onesimus “as you would receive me” (Philem. 17). He tells Philemon that if Onesimus owns anything, he should charge it to Paul’s account (Philem. 18), which sounds like Paul might be willing to pay the price to free Onesimus. Paul also casually mentions that Philemon owes him “even your own self” (Philem. 19). Paul means that Philemon became a Christian through his ministry. In that sense, Paul has given Philemon the gift of eternal life. Philemon owes Paul everything. The least he could do would be to free his own slave. Paul then comes to this conclusion: “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Philem. 21).
This is a radical move by Paul. He is saying that Onesimus doesn’t have a lower status than Philemon. They are one in Christ Jesus. They have equal access to God, equal standing, an equal inheritance. That’s why Paul writes, in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (See also Col. 3:11). When Paul writes to churches and tells slaves to act in a certain way, and masters to act in a certain way, we should imagine that slaves and their masters were worshiping together. If you look at Paul’s references to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 (Eph. 6:5–9) and Colossians 3 (technically Col. 3:22–4:1), you see that he reminds slaves that they are really serving Jesus, so they should work hard and work honorably. And he tells masters that they should remember that they and their slaves both have the same Master, Jesus. Again, Paul puts slaves and masters on the same footing, telling them that they are both slaves of Jesus. They belong to the same Master, they are part of the same family, and this should change their relationship.
We might still wonder why Paul doesn’t write more forcefully against the institution of slavery. I think there are two reasons why he doesn’t. The first is that the early church had no political power or influence. None. And the Roman Empire wasn’t a democratic republic. They couldn’t send a lobbyist to Rome. If early Christians tried to put an end to slavery through force or by sending a prophet to Caesar, it wouldn’t work, and it would likely backfire. The Roman Empire would crack down hard on Christians and put an end to the church. This is why we should study the Bible in its historical context. If we fail to understand and historical and cultural context of the Bible, we’ll end up misunderstanding its meaning.
But we should also note that Paul does tell slaves that, if possible, they should buy their freedom. This is what he writes in 1 Corinthians 7:20–24:
20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant [slave] when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant [slave] is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant [slave] of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slaves] of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
He tells slaves that if they can, they should buy their freedom. But as long as they are slaves, they should know that they are truly free in Christ. To those who are not slaves, Paul says that they should realize they are slaves of Christ. No matter what position they found themselves in, they should ultimately serve God. They can do that as slaves or as freedmen.
Another reason that Paul doesn’t speak forcefully against slavery is that he knows some things are more important than politics and public policy. The reason he doesn’t command Philemon to free his slave is because he wants Philemon to think about the gospel, the message of good news at the heart of Christianity. At the least, he wants Philemon to realize that his slave is now his brother. They belong to the same family. And that reminds me of something else, some words from that Christmas song, “O Holy Night.” The words are “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother.” While Christianity has given hope to literal slaves the world over, promising ultimate freedom in eternity, it also has something powerful to say to all of us: all of us are slaves.
Jesus once said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Elsewhere, Paul says that all people will either be slaves to sin or slaves of God (Rom. 6:16–22). The apostle Peter says, “whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Pet. 2:19). We like to think that we are free. One of the gods of our age is the idea that we can do whatever we want, that we are free agents with free wills that cannot be constrained. We can determine who we are and what we’ll do. But the Bible’s message is, “No, you’re not really free. You’re enslaved by your sinful desires. You often know the right thing to do but you don’t often do it because your selfishness, your greed, your pride, and your lust really are your masters. You’re in chains.” We’re not really as free as we think we are.
But the Bible’s message doesn’t end there. It says something quite amazing. It says that though we were enslaved, God came to free us. And he came to free us by becoming a slave. Consider this famous passage, from another one of Paul’s letters. This is Philippians 2:5–11:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [a slave], being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Though Jesus was and is the Son of God, which is to say he has always been God, he didn’t cling to that glorious status. He didn’t stand on his rights. He humbled himself by becoming a slave, by becoming a human being. And not only did he do that, but he put up with sinful human beings who doubted him, mocked him, rejected him, arrested him, tortured him, and killed him. He did this so that he could pay the penalty for our rebellion against God. Our sin must be punished, because God is a perfect judge and he can’t allow rebellion and evil to go unchecked. But if God punished us for our sins, we would be destroyed. Fortunately for us, God gave us a way to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the perfect man who became a perfect slave. Everyone who trusts in him is credited with his perfect obedience. Everyone who trusts in him has their debt of sin removed. Their chains are broken. They are forgiven. They receive the Holy Spirit, the third person of God who empowers us to trust God, to love God, and to obey God. Though our lives may be hard, we, like Jesus, will be exalted. Though we die, we will later be resurrected to live in a perfect world with God forever.
This part of the Bible’s story is known as redemption. It has given many people great hope. Slaves have been comforted by this news. Though they might be powerless to change their status, they could hope in Jesus, the God who became a slave. Though they were in physical chains, they knew the chains of sin were broken, and one day they would have eternal freedom. The apostle Peter wrote to slaves who were suffering unjustly. And he wrote these words (1 Pet. 2:18–25):
18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The message of Christianity is what brought about emancipation for slaves. Over a long period of time, slavery disappeared almost entirely from Europe. By the middle ages, there was almost no slavery in the Christian world. Sarah Ruden, a professor of the classics and hardly a Bible-thumping evangelical, says, “the early Christian church, without staging any actual campaign against slavery, in the course of the centuries weakened it until it all but disappeared from Europe. Slavery was doomed simply because it jarred with Christian feeling—the same basic circumstance that doomed it in the modern West.”
It’s true that slavery reemerged in Christianized nations sometime in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. That is a shameful thing. Yet Christians have always been the ones who pushed for the abolition of slavery. They realized that enslaving people was contrary to treating them like fellow image bearers of God. As many as two-thirds of abolition leaders in the United States were Christian pastors. Many of the celebrated figures who pushed for the abolition of slavery in America were Christians and they were led by Christian motivations.
Some people might think slavery was ended by the Enlightenment, by people who were motivated by secular reason. But this isn’t true. Many famous figures of the Enlightenment, like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Voltaire, supported slavery. David Hume, a famous philosopher who was a skeptic (what we might call an agnostic), was not in favor of abolition. Worldviews that don’t believe all human beings are made in God’s image don’t give us good enough reason to free slaves. To free slaves, we have to go against self-interest. This would actually have us go against the survival instinct that we supposedly have. If we truly believed in any form of Darwinian evolution, we would believe that nature is “red in tooth and claw” and that we are engaged in a competition. It’s a survival of the fittest, and if the weak become slaves to help the strong, well, so much the better for us.
But Christianity gives us a proper motivation for putting an end to slavery. In England, one of the leading figures in the abolition movement was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a Member of Parliament and a Christian. Largely due to his work, the British Empire banned the slave trade (in 1807) and then slavery itself (in 1833). And they did this at great cost. Slavery only existed in the more remote colonies of the British Empire, places like the West Indies, islands in the Caribbean, where sugar was made by slaves. The British Empire knew that the cost of abolition would be huge for slave owners. So, the Emancipation Act of 1833 paid slave owners to compensate for their losses. The cost was “equal to half of the British annual budget.”
Freedom always comes at a cost. We see that most clearly with Jesus’ sacrifice. And there are many ways for us to respond to that sacrifice today.
If you are not a Christian, I urge you to put your trust and your hope in Jesus. Right now, you are not truly free. You’re not free to live out your God-given purpose in life, which is to know God, love him, and serve him. You’re not free from the fear or death. But Jesus came to destroy the power of death (Heb. 2:14) and to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). The only way to be right with God, to be forgiven of all wrongdoing, and to have eternal life in a perfect world is to trust in Jesus. I would love to talk to you more about what this looks like in your life. It first comes with the realization that you are enslaved and you can’t deliver yourself.
There are many ways that Christians should respond to this message. One is that there are things that are more important than politics. We often get caught up in defending our first amendment freedoms. We get caught up in trying to fix the world through politics. But there is something more important. Paul told slaves that, more important than their freedom, they should make the gospel look good. He told slaves to honor their masters, “so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled” (1 Tim. 6:1). Paul told Titus that slaves “should be submissive to their own masters in everything . . . so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Tit. 2:9–10). Making God look good is more important than our own personal vindications. We should be willing to suffer for God. Jesus, the truly righteous one, suffered unjustly, and so should we.
We can also learn to serve God in all circumstances, regardless of our position in society. If you are an employee, you should work as though your boss were God. Ultimately, he is. If you’re an employer, treat your employees well, knowing that you have a greater boss to answer to. Regardless of our position in this world, we were called to serve the greatest Master there is. Any other master will ruin us and eventually destroy us. Jesus is the only Master who would become a slave to set us free, to die for us so that we could live forever.
- Clare Kim, “Pastor Is under Fire for Views That Are in the Bible,” NBCNews.com, January 11, 2013, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/50433217/t/pastor-under-fire-views-are-bible; Billy Hallowell, “MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell Mocks the Bible and Urges Obama to Exclude It from the Inauguration,” The Blaze, January 11, 2013, https://www.theblaze.com/news/2013/01/11/msnbcs-lawrence-odonnell-mocks-the-bible-urges-obama-to-exclude-it-from-the-inauguration. Both articles quote O’Donnell as saying “someone” instead of “somewhere”; surely, this is a mistake. ↑
- The ESV formerly used “slaves” with “bondservants” appearing in a footnote. The actual Greek word, in the singular, is δοῦλος (doulos). Now, they have reversed this, probably so that we wouldn’t think of chattel slavery in America instead of Roman slavery. As we’ll see, the institutions were quite different. ↑
- James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 221. ↑
- Arthur A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 881. He cites Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 105–131. ↑
- Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 297. ↑
- Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 168. ↑
- Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 279. ↑
- Stark, For the Glory of God, 359. ↑
- Ibid., 351. ↑
Why do we think slavery is wrong? Where did that idea come from? What does the New Testament really say about slavery? And what does this have to do with us today? Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and answers those questions.
I haven’t used the Proverbs much at all in my preaching, which isn’t by design. Proverbs is a very important book of the Bible, full of wisdom and insight. And there are some very funny proverbs, like this one:
Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout
is a beautiful woman without discretion (Prov. 11:22).
You have to think about that a little bit to get it.
Another one of my favorite proverbs is this:
A fool’s lips walk into a fight,
and his mouth invites a beating (Prov. 18:6).
That’s a good one, isn’t it? The idea is that foolish people speak before they think. They rush to judgment, and the consequences aren’t good.
There are a couple of proverbs near that one that address similar issues. The next verse says,
A fool’s mouth is his ruin,
and his lips are a snare to his soul (Prov. 18:7).
So, the words of a fool lead him into trouble. That’s because they’re not based on knowledge, but only opinion. Proverbs 18:2 says,
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
A lot of times, we form opinions quickly. It seems like people don’t think, they just react. They see a person and they quickly form an opinion. They hear of something on the news, and they quickly have a theory. The problem is that opinions don’t require a lot of thought. In fact, they often don’t require any conscious thought at all. Often, our opinions are no more than gut reactions.
But Christians are supposed to seek wisdom and understanding. We’re not supposed to go on gut reactions and quickly-formed opinions. Proverbs 18:15 says,
An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Knowledge is often very different from opinion. Our first reaction to things may very well be wrong. Proverbs 18:17 says,
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
Our first impressions and our “hot takes” can be wrong. What first seems right can later seem wrong.
Why do I bring this up? Because in the passage that we’re looking at today, the apostle Paul tells his younger associate, Timothy, that he shouldn’t prejudge, that he shouldn’t do anything from partiality. In other words, Paul tells Timothy that he wouldn’t act rashly. He shouldn’t make decisions unless they are based on real evidence. And that’s a good lesson for all of us to learn.
Today, we’re going to look at 1 Timothy 5:17–25. This book of the Bible is a letter from Paul, the preeminent evangelist and church planter of the first century, to his younger associate, Timothy, who was responsible for the health of a church. In this passage, Paul tells Timothy about some things related to the leaders of the church. Here, they’re called elders. Elsewhere, they’re called overseers (1 Tim. 3:1) or shepherds (Eph. 4:11). We often just call them “pastors.” Now, that might not seem very relevant to you if you’re not a pastor, or if you’re not a member of a church. But the principles that we see in today’s passage should inform the way that all of us live, particularly those of us who trust our lives to Jesus Christ.
So, let’s read today’s passage, then we’ll break it down into parts to understand it, and finally we’ll think about how it should affect our lives. Here is 1 Timothy 5:17–25:
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
Let’s walk through this passage together.
As I said, this paragraph is about elders, or pastors. The first two verses state that elders should be paid. Paul says that those “who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” “Double honor” may refer to receiving both respect and financial support. It’s not enough to give a pastor one or the other. Other passages in the New Testament teach this idea. Some passages teach about respecting and submitting to leaders of the church (1 Thess. 5:12–13; Heb. 13:17). Others teach about the importance of financially supporting ministers. Galatians 6:6 says, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Paul also talks about this in 1 Corinthians 9. He says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” (verse 7). And then he says, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (verse 11).
There are many reasons why a pastor should receive financial support. We can talk about the value of spiritual leadership, the eternal value of the word of God, the fact that a financially-supported pastor is free to work without stress, and so on. But it comes down to simple, proverbial wisdom. Everything that is of benefit comes at a cost, and someone has to pay that cost. I’ll come back to that idea later.
Before I move on, there are a couple of interesting details in verse 17 and 18. In verse 17, Paul refers to those who rule in the church, and then he says, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some churches have taken this to mean that there are ruling elders and preaching elders. But that clause could be translated, “namely those who labor in preaching and teaching.” That’s a picky grammatical point that rests on how we translate one Greek word (μάλιστα, malista). But I think that’s probably the right translation. What Paul is saying is that those who labor are those who preach and teach. The work of a pastor is largely preaching and teaching the Bible. He leads with the word of God.
The other interesting point is that in verse 18, Paul quotes two other passages in the Bible, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Paul calls both of these passages Scripture, which is a way of saying that they are the word of God (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). The first passage, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” is from Deuteronomy 25:4. It teaches a basic principle: an animal who is treading the grain, in order to separate the kernel of grain from the husk, should be able to eat some of that grain. Paul applies that principle to supporting pastors. The idea that we should take away is that though the Old Testament law is not in force today, we can and should apply basic principles of that law to our lives. The second passage, “The laborer deserves his wages,” is from Luke 10:7. Jesus spoke these words. I just want to point out that Jesus viewed the Old Testament as God’s word (see John 10:34–35, for example), and Paul viewed Jesus’ words as God’s word. The apostle Peter believed that Paul’s letters were Scripture, too (2 Pet 3:15–16). There are many such verses that indicate that the whole Bible is God’s written word.
In verse 19, Paul shifts gears. He says that charges against elders must be based on two or three witnesses. This is a biblical principal. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Interestingly, that passage in Deuteronomy goes on to talk about a “malicious witness” who accuses someone of wrongdoing. Paul may have that in mind here, too.
Why does Paul single out accusations made against an elder? It may be that people are more willing to wrongly accuse pastors of something. It may also be that Paul knows that all it takes is one false accusation to ruin a man’s life. So, if people accuse a pastor, there should definitely be multiple witnesses who can attest to the pastor’s sin. And when we’re talking about sin, we mean a sin serious enough to address publicly, something that, if not repented of, could disqualify a pastor.
Why would people make false accusations against an elder? Because they think the church is “theirs” and they don’t like the way the pastor is leading. Power struggles are behind a lot of ungodly behavior. The thirst for power can lead an otherwise good man to do a bad thing.
And lest you think I’m making this up, I can tell you that multiple pastors have told me that they have been falsely accused of something by people who want to gain or reassert their power in a church. Less than two weeks ago I met a man who has been the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania. He has been at that church for seven years. He told me that the same married couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against him. (I believe the husband in the couple is a leader in the church, possibly the youth group leader—I can’t remember.) This pastor explained to me that his church’s by-laws clearly state that there are two reasons to dismiss a pastor: for teaching false doctrine and for immoral behavior. Early on in his tenure at the church, he switched the Bible translation that the church used. They were using the King James Bible, and he switched to the English Standard Version, the same translation we’re using here. This couple tried to accuse him of teaching some kind of false doctrine. I can’t remember the details. But more recently, the wife in this couple tried to start a whisper campaign against the pastor. He had preached a sermon in which he happened to address the men. He said that lust and pornography were serious problems for men, and they are. This woman then started to whisper in the church that the pastor had an “eye problem.” She meant that the pastor was looking at things he shouldn’t be looking at. So, the pastor and the other elders had to address this couple. He said he put the man “in quarantine;” if he wanted to continue to be the youth group leader, he had to meet with the pastor and the other elders to study what it meant to be an elder in the church. So, this couple has twice tried to stir up trouble against this pastor, but their attempts have been thwarted.
Now, there are times when accusations against pastors are backed by multiple witnesses. And if that is the case, the pastor can either confess his sin and repent, or they may “persist in sin,” as Paul says. Paul tells Timothy, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Unrepentant elders should be rebuked in public, in front of the congregation. This will cause the other elders—“the rest”—to stand in fear, lest they fall into sin as well. Publicly addressing sin serves as an example. It says, “This kind of behavior won’t be tolerated here.” Paul is clearly talking about those who continue in sin, probably some kind of egregious sin. He doesn’t mean that those who sin once are kicked out of a church.
Since disciplining a church leader is difficult, and since we’re so prone to have our emotions and biases get in the way, Paul tells Timothy not to be prejudiced and not to be biased. In verse 21, he writes, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.” Timothy shouldn’t be prejudiced against an elder. He shouldn’t show partiality towards an elder or an accuser. Instead, he should act as though he were standing in the presence of God, Christ, and angels, because in reality we all stand in their presence, though we can’t see them. We all should act as though God is witnessing everything we do, because he is.
While on the topic of rebuking and possibly dismissing sinning elders, Paul tells Timothy not to put someone into that position of leadership too quickly. In verse 22, he says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” Paul may be thinking of installing new elders. Or he may be thinking of reinstalling an elder who had sinned. Either way, Timothy shouldn’t act too quickly. If he puts a man who is unfit for the job into a leadership role, it could harm the church.
Paul also tells Timothy not to participate in the sins of others and to keep himself pure. Earlier in this letter, Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). There is always the possibility that any of us could fall into sin. So, be careful.
But it’s possible that Timothy might take that command to be pure in the wrong way. In Ephesus, where Timothy was located, there were false teachers who taught that people shouldn’t eat certain foods and that they shouldn’t marry (1 Tim. 4:1–5). They might have taught that people shouldn’t drink any alcohol whatsoever. Timothy might have been observing that supposed rule. But in verse 23, as a bit of an aside, Paul says, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” There’s nothing wrong with drinking some wine—at least if you’re not addicted to it. If you’re an alcoholic, stay away from it! The Bible doesn’t forbid all drinking; it warns against drunkenness, but it also says that wine is a gift (Ps. 104:14–15). In Timothy’s case, Paul says he should drink wine for his stomach problems and for his “frequent ailments.” We don’t know what these were. Perhaps Timothy had experienced a great amount of anxiety and stress, and a little wine might relax him. That’s a bit of speculation, but I think it makes sense given how difficult leading a church can be, and how Timothy was probably experiencing opposition in Ephesus, at least from the false teachers.
In the last two verses, verse 24 and verse 25, Paul returns to the idea of not making hasty decisions. Timothy shouldn’t quickly put someone into a position of leadership because a man’s qualities are not always easy to see. Some sins or character defects are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. Some good works or good characteristics are obvious; some become apparent only later in time. That’s what Paul means when he writes, “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” Sometimes, our initial view of people is wrong. We don’t know everything about a person. We should refrain from making judgments until we’ve given things time. In this case, when someone is being considered as an elder candidate, the church needs to know who he really is. Some men can appear godly, but they have sinful characteristics that they are hiding. Some men may seem rather ordinary, but their godliness comes through in the end. The basic principle is that you can try to hide sin, but you can’t hide sin forever. Your sin will find you out. And you can’t hide your good works. In the end, those will be revealed. That is certainly true when we are all judged by God on the last day. Everything done in darkness, whether bad or good, will be brought into the light.
Now that we’ve walked through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives.
There are some obvious applications to life in the church. The church should pay pastors, those who labor in preaching and teaching. I am grateful that the church takes care of my family. If you are here and you’re not giving generously to the church, please consider doing that. The finances of the church don’t all come to me. Twenty percent of what goes in the offering plate goes to missionaries. We also need money to maintain and upgrade this facility, to have materials to use, to pay for utilities and insurance, and so on.
We should also be careful about making accusations against pastors. Pastors are flawed, sinful people like anyone else. And some egregious sins must be addressed. But some people will attack pastors if they feel threatened, usually because the pastor has made some decisions that they don’t like. And all it takes is one accusation to end a man’s pastoring career. As another pastor friend of mine told me, some people will chase off a pastor and not think twice about what that does to the man’s life, to his family. As long as they can have control of the church, as long as the church can be “theirs” or go the way they like it, false accusers don’t care. So, there must be real charges against a pastor and they must be backed by multiple witnesses.
Another application to the life of the church is that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge a candidate for leadership. If we don’t really know a person’s true character, we shouldn’t rush to make them a pastor, or a deacon, or a teacher, or any other position of authority. We should get to know a person. Again, our first impressions can be wrong—so can our second and third impressions. We shouldn’t rush to judgment.
Now, all of that may not seem very relevant to your life right now. To be honest, you might not care at this moment about what happens to pastors. I understand. But this passage still applies to you. Just as we can learn basic principles from the Old Testament and apply them to our lives, we can do the same with this passage. And one basic principle we all can learn is that we shouldn’t rush to judgments. We shouldn’t be hasty in forming our opinions.
One of the great problems in our society today is that we rush to judgments. We are all very reactionary. This is most true when it comes to political issues. But it also seems to be true of any potentially controversial topic. We are all very quick to have an opinion, to believe that we’re right about something, even if we don’t really know what we’re talking about. It’s like we’re rooting for a sports team. If you’re a Red Sox fan—and you should be—then you don’t need to know who plays for the Sox or who plays for the Yankees. You know the Sox should win and the Yankees should lose. You don’t care if the Sox players are using steroids and corked bats. All you care about is that they win. You know the Yankees are a detestable lot and they deserve to lose.
Of course, I’m being a bit sarcastic here. But that’s how people react to heated political and religious issues. And it’s a problem. We shouldn’t rush to make judgments about complex issues. Perhaps we should slow down and think.
There’s a great book I read recently called How to Think, written by Alan Jacobs. I think the subtitle of the book tells us what it’s really about: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. At the beginning of the book, he says that most of us don’t want to think. Instead, we just emote. He quotes T. S. Eliot: “when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” We tend to view anyone different from us as a “repugnant cultural other.” Before they open their mouth or write a word, we just know they’re wrong.
Jacobs says we should be more virtuous than this. We should actually listen to people and try to understand them. We should slow down and not react when we hear something we think may be wrong. We shouldn’t mischaracterize other people in order to win an argument. We should value learning over debating. In other words, we should slow down and think, and we should treat other people with respect, even if they may be wrong.
Christians should be leaders in doing this. It’s embarrassing that more Christians don’t know how to think deeply about a complex world. It’s embarrassing that Christians don’t act virtuously. And I think some Christians don’t apply their theology to their own lives. Christianity teaches us that we’re all sinners. We have all turned away from a holy God who created us to know him, love him, and worship him. Because of that turning away from God, the power of sin is at work in us. Even Christians struggle with the lingering effects of sin. And sin can affect the way we think. We can be wrong in our judgments. So, we should slow down and consider whether we actually know what we’re talking about. We might very well be wrong. Christians should be the most humble people of all, willing to consider their own faults instead of pointing fingers at others.
Earlier, I said that any benefit we receive comes at a cost. That’s the way the world works. Every gain we have comes at a cost. The thing we can never forget is this: Our ultimate gain—being reconciled to God, forgiven of sin, and granted eternal life—came at an ultimate cost. Our sin is so bad—we’re so bad!—that it took nothing less than the Son of God becoming a human being and dying for us to fix the problem of sin. The gospel—the core message of Christianity—teaches us that all humans are sinful. Our desires are messed up. We want the wrong things. We make wrong judgments. We go astray. The only way we can be restored is for Jesus to come, to be the perfect man, and to die in our place. That way, his perfect righteousness is credited to our account and the debt of our sins is wiped away. It’s as though we owed trillions of dollars to God, and Jesus paid off that debt and left an extra trillion in our account. But we only receive that benefit if we trust him. This should humble us.
I would urge us all not to be hasty in our judgments. Christians, we should known for our thoughtfulness, our patience, our carefully considering evidence. This should all be part of loving God with all our minds.
And if you think you know all about Jesus but still don’t trust him, consider the possibility that you may very well be wrong. Consider that you may be rejecting Jesus because you want to retain authority over your life. Consider that you may reject Jesus because you don’t want to change. It’s not that there is insufficient evidence for Christianity. It’s that you don’t even want to consider that evidence in the first place. We all can be that way about various things in our lives. But that doesn’t get us to the truth, and only the truth can set us free (John 8:32). Jesus himself is that truth (John 14:6). He came to rescue us from our wrong judgments. The only way to be saved from condemnation on that day when all our sins and good deeds are finally exposed is to run to Jesus and find refuge in him.
- Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017). ↑
- T. S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), quoted in Jacobs, How to Think, 22. ↑
We shouldn’t rush to judgment, whether in church matters or anything else. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:17-25.
The Bible teaches charity, compassion, love. It teaches us to care for orphans and widows. The Bible also teaches personal responsibility. People should care for their own family members and work hard. Pastor Brian Watson shows how both of these ideas come together in 1 Timothy 5:9-16.
Christians have two families, one natural, the other ecclesiastical (the church family). Christians have responsibilities to both families. Timothy was supposed to treat people in the church like family. The church should care for widows, though widows should be cared for first by their own natural families. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 5:1-8.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at some important things that we do in the church. And today, I want to talk about something we do every single week. I want to talk about music.
I don’t think I need to tell you that music is an important part of life. We hear it everywhere: On the radio, on soundtracks to movies and television shows, on commercials, and, yes, in the church. Yet we don’t often spend time talking about music, what it means, and why it’s important.
So, today I want to do that. I want to help us think Christianly about music. More specifically, I want us to think about the role of singing in the life of the church. To do that, I’m going to ask and answer a series of questions.
Here’s the first question: Why do we sing? Maybe that sounds like a funny question to ask. Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Why shouldn’t we sing?” But it’s an important question to ask. I think that public singing is a lot less common than it used to be. There’s only one place outside the church and outside choirs where people tend to sing in public, and that’s at rock concerts. We don’t sing in the mall, at the movie theater, or at sporting events. (Unless you sing the national anthem, or belt out “Sweet Caroline” at Red Sox games, or if you’re that guy who’s had a little too much beer.)
Singing used to be much more common, particularly before radio, television, and the Internet. In the nineteenth century, if you wanted home entertainment, you played and sang music. In an opinion piece written for the New York Times twenty-five years ago, Russell Baker noted that even through World War II, Americans sang more. That was true during the war, when people would even sing in movie theaters to “follow the bouncing ball” tunes. He writes, “The songs may have been silly, melancholy, propagandistic and sentimental, but singing them helped Americans define a communal identity for themselves. Nowadays the absence of singing defines our lack of communal identity, our national apartness, our aloneness.”
But singing together is making a bit of a comeback. Several years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about group-singing, which is when people come together just to sing. They’re not performing or worshiping; they’re not even professionals; they just want to sing with other people. Pete Seeger, the folk singer, was a champion of group-singing. He said, “I think that singing together gives people some kind of a holy feeling. And it can happen whether they’re atheists, or whoever. You feel like, ‘Gee, we’re all together.’” Notice that he is essentially saying that singing together creates community.
Also, research has shown that singing in groups can reduce levels of cortisol, associated with stress and weight gain, and singing can also lower blood pressure. Singing in groups helps produce endorphins and oxytocin, which create feelings of pleasure and fight against feelings of stress and anxiety. So, singing seems to be good for our health.
Here’s another reason to sing: Music is quite simply a good gift. I don’t think that any of us would deny that music is a good thing. Just think of what life would be like if music didn’t exist. We could still function, yet life would be duller. Music is something that we don’t absolutely need, but something that makes life better. From a biblical perspective, we can say that music is grace: An undeserved, good gift from God. James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
So, music is a good gift, singing together is good for us, and it creates a sense of community. Those are some good reasons to sing. But there are more.
Within the story of the Bible, God’s people have always sung, particularly in response to God’s great acts of salvation. When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by bringing them through the Red Sea, they sang on the other side (Exod. 15). Moses and the Israelites sang,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exod. 15:1b–2).
Over four hundred years later, when David was king, the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, and David commanded the Levites to identify singers and instrumentalists to “play loudly” and “raise sounds of joy” (1 Chron. 15:16). And then David sang,
8 Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the peoples!
9 Sing to him, sing praises to him;
tell of all his wondrous works! (1 Chron. 16:8-9)
23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
24 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples! (1 Chron. 16:23-24)
When David’s son, Solomon, built the temple in Jerusalem, singers helped the people celebrate (2 Chron. 5:12-13). Clearly, God’s people celebrated important events in their history with singing. They sang of God’s salvation of them and God’s provision for them. And it seems that they didn’t even have to be commanded by God to sing. They sang because they wanted to. They sang because they were thankful for what God had done for them.
And that leads me to another point: We often sing about what we love the most. We praise what we love. That’s why love songs exist. People sing about the one they love. Singing helps us express our greatest desires and our greatest emotions.
I would say that one of the main reasons why we sing is so that we can get theological truths from our heads into our hearts. When we sing, we’re not just rehearsing true statements about God and what he has done. When we sing, we feel what God is like and what he has done for us. God has made us not just to be thinking creatures, but also feeling creatures. And he has given us bodies, so we are supposed to be creatures that not only feel things emotionally, but feel things physically. Singing is a physical act that helps us feel emotionally. When we sing true words about God, we are thinking, feeling, and doing all at the same time.
Sometimes, we sing in response to something we already feel. Sometimes, we sing in order to feel something that we know to be true but don’t yet feel. I don’t know if any of you have sung a hymn to remind yourself of a truth you already know. I know I have. (“It Is Well with My Soul” is particularly good for Christians when they don’t feel that things are well.) I imagine that’s what Paul and Silas did in Acts 16:25 when they were in jail in Philippi. I doubt they sang because they were feeling good. They probably sang to remind themselves of who God is and what he had already done for them and what he promised he would do for them in the future. I think that singing is one of the few things that helps when we’re not feeling thankful to God, when we’re depressed, or when we seem to lost our love for God.
Here’s another reason why singing is good: It helps us memorize truths. How many of us can remember lyrics to the silliest, most worthless songs we heard when we were young? Sometimes, even when we don’t try to memorize words to songs, we do anyway. When we sing hymns and songs that have words directly from the Bible or words based on the Bible, we start to memorize theological truths that stick with us.
Singing is also something that we can do as a congregation. It’s an activity we can all be engaged in at the same time. That’s another reason to sing.
Of course, we also sing because we’re commanded to. In the Old Testament, we find commands to sing, particularly in the Psalms. We read things like:
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name (Ps. 30:4).
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
7 For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm! (Ps. 47:6–7)
We also find commands to sing in the New Testament, which we’ll look at in a moment.
All of this leads me to a second question: What are we supposed to sing? We have several good reasons to sing, but what does the Bible say about what types of songs we are supposed to sing?
I ask this question because there tends to be tension in churches about whether old hymns or new songs should be sung. What does the Bible actually say about this issue?
There are two passages in the New Testament that tell us what kind of things we should sing. The two passages are parallel; in other words, they basically say the same thing, and they are both written by Paul.
The first one is Ephesians 5:19. To get a sense of the context, I’ll read verses 15–21:
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
In this passage, Paul is in the middle of telling the Ephesians how to live in light of the gospel. Paul has spent the first three chapters telling the Ephesians about how God has predestined them for salvation, and how God has redeemed them with Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He has told them that God the Father has adopted them now that they are united to the Son of God. He has told them that they have the Holy Spirit living inside of them. He has told them that Jesus is above all power and authority on earth. He has told them that they have been reconciled to God and saved from sin and condemnation, all through God’s free gift of grace. They have been made spiritually alive, and this is God’s work. Paul has told them that God has brought them into the one people of God, where the Holy Spirit dwells and where God’s wisdom and glory are displayed.
I take time to describe this because this is the good news of Christianity. We all have turned away from God. We have ignored our purpose for living, which is to have a right relationship with God. Yet God saves his people by sending his Son to live the perfect life that none of us live. He is the perfect representative of God. He is the one who truly worships God always. And yet though he is perfect and never did anything wrong, he was treated as a criminal and he was sentenced to death. He agreed to this plan, dying on the cross in our place, so that everyone who turns to him, trusts him, and follows him has the penalty for their sin paid for. If turning away from God is a crime, we are all guilty. But those who turn to Jesus are declared innocent because Jesus paid did the time for them. He paid their sentence. They are now free to live as children of God.
This is a great reason why we should sing. Christians have been forgiven and have been reconciled to God, not because we are good, but because Jesus is good. And we can look forward to living with God in a perfect world on that day when Jesus returns and makes all things right, when the dead are raised and Christians receive new bodies that cannot die again.
As Paul is telling the Ephesians how to make the best use of their time, he tells them that they shouldn’t get drunk. They shouldn’t be controlled by alcohol. By extension, they shouldn’t be controlled by drugs, either. But they should be controlled by the Holy Spirit. And they should address one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Don’t miss that: Part of the way that we make good use of our time is by singing to each other.
The parallel passage is in the book of Colossians, which is another one of Paul’s letters. Specifically, the verse is Colossians 3:16, but to get some context, I’ll read verses 12–17:
12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Here, you can see that Paul wants us to be more like Jesus. And he wants us to be thankful. But look at verse 16: Paul tells us to “[l]et the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” In Ephesians, Paul says to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Here, he says to have Christ’s word dwell in us. If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you need to be filled with Jesus’ words. And, really, the whole Bible is Jesus’ words because Jesus is God. So, if you want to experience more of God, you need his words dwelling in you.
But, as far as music goes, the point in these two passages is that we should sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Somehow, this is part of how the Spirit fills us, how the word of Christ dwells in us, and how we teach and admonish each other. What do these three categories of song mean? It seems that “Psalms” are the Psalms of the Old Testament. They are songs of praise. That’s why many Psalms have some musical direction underneath their titles. The words are poetry, and they are like prayers, but they are intended also to be sung. That’s why many churches sing settings of Psalms regularly. The best hymns pull phrases from different parts of the Bible, including the Psalms. And even new songs incorporate ideas and phrases from the Psalms. For example, the refrain “Bless the Lord, O my soul” that we sing in the song “10,000 Reasons” comes from Psalm 103.
A “hymn” here doesn’t refer to a style of music. It refers to a “song of praise.” The word itself is hardly used in the New Testament, but in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used to refer to “songs of praise” or “praise” (Pss. 39:4; 64:2; 99:4; 118:171; Isa. 42:10). This word may refer to the texts we have in the New Testament that appear to be songs, like Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55, or the “song of Simeon” (the “Nunc Dimittas”) in Luke 2:29-32. Other possible hymns are John 1:1–18; Philippians 2:6–11; Colossians 1:15–20; and 1 Timothy 3:16.
A “spiritual songs” doesn’t mean spirituals, or songs that are “spiritual,” which is pretty vague. It refers to songs prompted by the Holy Spirit. These could be spontaneous songs composed on the spot.
At any rate, these three words refer to types of texts. They do not refer to musical genres. And here’s an important point: We have no idea what the music sung in biblical times sounded like. Modern musical notation started around the year 900, over 800 years after the Bible was completed, and it would take a few hundred years for that notation to resemble what we have today. So we don’t have the sheet music of that time. Obviously, we don’t have any audio recordings of early Christian music. But what Jesus and Paul sang was very different from “Amazing Grace,” and I’m sure even our older hymns might have sounded very foreign to their ears.
The point is that the Bible doesn’t tell us a certain musical style to sing. Musical styles are constantly changing. What’s most important are the words we sing. We need to sing words that reflect and communicate biblical truth. They need to be centered on God. They need to exalt Jesus. And they should be ones that can be understood by people today.
As for music, we should try to sing music that is beautiful, music that reminds us that God is transcendent and glorious. That means we should try to identify some hymns and songs that will stand the test of time. We should also try to sing music that stirs our souls, songs that speak to our hearts. We should sing music that is intelligible to contemporary generations. After all, music is a language unto itself, and we want our language to be understood. That means that some of our songs will be newer, able to speak more directly to the hearts of younger people.
When we sing as a congregation, we want to sing music that can be sung together. That means we can’t sing music that is too difficult to sing. The music we sing shouldn’t have too wide of a range. It shouldn’t be too high or too low. The rhythm can’t be too complex. Handel’s Messiah is a great piece of music, but a church full of average singers won’t be able to sing it well. Our goal is to sing together.
It should go without saying that this emphasis on congregational singing means that our music isn’t meant to be entertainment. We’re not here to put on a show. In fact, the kind of music sung should be one of the least important factors in picking a church. What’s more important is whether the church is preaching the Bible accurately and whether the church is following the Bible’s teachings faithfully.
You may have favorite hymns and songs that we haven’t been singing. And the reason we haven’t been signing them is that they may not be good pieces of music, songs that have a beautiful melody or harmonic progression. They may be pieces that sound like they belong to one particular musical era that has come and gone. Their words may not be theologically sound. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy these hymns and songs at home. But for our corporate worship, I try to pick music that is of good theology, good quality, is singable, stirs the soul, and is intelligible to younger generations. That’s a hard balance to achieve.
One last word on the type of music we should sing. The music has to match the text. You can sing the words of “Amazing Grace” to the theme song from “Gilligan’s Island.” In some of the songs we have in our current hymnal, the music doesn’t really fit the text, or even the words don’t fit the theological theme. The greatest example I can think of is “Jesus Is Coming Again” (#567).
Now, very briefly, I want to ask my third question: How do we play music? How do we sing?
We should play musical instruments with excellence. Psalm 33:2–3 says,
2 Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
3 Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
I think we should all agree that God deserves to be praised with good music that is performed well. Instrumentalists need to play well. Those who lead singing should be able to sing well.
But, at the same time, when we sing together, it’s not a concert. What matters most is our hearts. We need to sing with hearts tuned to praise God. As Jesus said, God is looking for those who will worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). If singing is a part of worship (please don’t confuse singing with worship!), then singing, too, should be done in spirit and in truth.
I also think we should consider singing in parts, in harmony, because when we sing the same song in parts, we are reflecting the body of Christ. But before I get too far with that idea, I want to move to the piano so I can talk a bit more about music. After all, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. (That’s a saying I didn’t make up, though I don’t know where it originated. Also, the original saying, I believe, is “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”) Architecture must be seen and experienced, just as music must be heard and experienced. So, let me move to the piano to demonstrate some points.
As I do that, I want to ask a fourth question: What does music say about God?
Let me continue with the idea of parts. In music, we have the melody, the tune. But we also have harmony, the combination of notes that come together to produce a chord. In music, we can have one chord that consists of many different notes. So, there is unity and plurality in a chord, and there is unity and plurality to a four-part hymn. In the same way, there is unity and plurality to the body of Christ, the church. We are one because we are united to Jesus. But we all play different roles. In that way, the church is like a choir. Not all of us will be soloists. Not all of us will sing the melody, the soprano line. Some will, and they are the more visible members of the church. But some of us will perform supporting roles. We’ll sing the inner voices of the chords, the alto and tenor parts. Some members of the church will play foundational roles. They’ll be our basses. Though we all sing different parts, we’re all singing the same piece of music.
You might even say that the unity and plurality of music echoes the unity and plurality of God. We proclaim that there is one God in three Persons. Now, we can’t say that is exactly like one chord consisting of three notes. Because with God, the fullness of God is found in each Person of God; Jesus isn’t one-third of God. So, the analogy breaks down quickly. But there is perfect harmony in a triad just as there is perfect harmony in the Trinity.
Here’s something else, which may be harder to discuss. I think that music is evidence for the existence of God. If you’re not a musician, this next bit may make your eyes glaze over. In fact, it may make your doughnuts glaze over. It’s that technical.
To illustrate, I want to play a short piece of music on the piano. This is a short piano piece written by the German composer, Robert Schumann (1801–1856). It’s called “Träumerei,” which means “dreaming” or “reverie.” It’s part of a larger collection of piano pieces called Kinderszenen, written in 1838.
Here are the two things I want to point out. In a piece of music like this, the musical language or structure is fairly simple. There are a few main chords that are played, with some secondary chords that provide some color. The music sounds good. It’s harmonious. Mostly, this piece of music contains major triads. It’s written in the key of F major. That’s a diatonic key, consisting of seven notes that alternate between whole steps and half steps. (If you don’t know music, think “Doe, a deer, a female deer; ray, a drop of golden sun . . .”). In that key, there are some very prominent chords, such as F major (F-A-C) and C major (C-E-G) or C7, the dominant seventh (C-E-G-Bb). These chords are very consonant. They sound good together. Even when there are brief bits of dissonance, they resolve. We have a strong sense of where “home” is. It’s F, the tonic. We know that the penultimate chord, C7, must resolve to F and not some other chord, like E major or A-flat major.
Here’s what’s interesting: The fact that all of this sounds so normal and good to us is not because it’s simply the music we’re used to. Some people will say that. We can call them musical relativists. They are the kind of people who refuse to say that any one type of music is better than any other. But I think that’s wrong.
The reason why this music sounds so good, and why other, more experimental music of, say, the twentieth century, sounds bad is because this music is based on mathematical relationships. The relationships between notes in a major or minor key, or between chords in those keys, are based on simple mathematical proportions or ratios.
Many of us have heard of “A 440.” That means that the frequency of the A above middle C (A4) is 440 Hz. That means that when I play this key, if it’s tuned to 440hz, the frequency of the strings vibrating will be 440 times per second. The strings will vibrate 440 times per second, which produces sound waves that will oscillate that many times per second. (There will be other vibrations present, which produce harmonics.) Now, if you go to the A above this A (which will be A5), the frequency will be 880. That’s double 440. Every time you go up an octave, the frequency doubles. Of course, every time you go down an octave, the frequency will be divided in two. So, that is a nice mathematical relationship. But you don’t need to know that to know hear the octave.
Now, let’s think about the notes within a key. If we’re in A major, the most prominent chord will be an A major triad: A-C#-E (or do-mi-so in solfege). If the A is 440 Hz, the C-sharp should be 550 Hz, and E 660 Hz. That’s a 4:5:6 ratio. The next most prominent chord is the E major chord, the dominant. And that’s based on E, which is 1.5 times the frequency of A. In fact, all of the common intervals are based on simple ratios. The perfect fourth is a 3:4 ratio. The minor third is a 5:6 ratio. The second is an 8:9 ratio. The major sixth is a 3:5 ratio. The minor seventh is a 4:7 ratio. There is obviously a great deal of order to this music. These aren’t complex, seemingly random ratios (like 1:1.719358).
This illustration is found in Vern Poythress’s Redeeming Science.
This table is found on a Wikipedia page concerning music and mathematics.
Here’s the point of all of this: I believe that God created music for our good. I believe he created the language and structure of music based on mathematical proportions. The reason why this music sounds good to our ears is because it lines up with God’s design for music. The combination of frequencies that harmonize mathematically sound good to our ears because God created our ears, our minds, and the building blocks of music. This is not something we created or invented. It’s something that already exists, something that we discovered. And I think that’s true of so much in this world. It’s true of science. It’s true of God’s design for us as human beings. It’s true of God’s design for marriage and the family. When we discover how God has arranged these things in nature, we find harmony. When we go against God’s design, we get dissonance and cacophony. That’s why music that tries to abandon major and minor scales and these basic intervals doesn’t sound right. It’s going against fabric of God’s creation.
Here’s another reason why music is evidence for God. I think this point is easier to understand. Part of what makes music beautiful is that it is bound by the limitations of time. In short, music runs in real time. We can’t stop it. Yes, you can pause on a chord and just hold it. But it has to move onward until the end of the piece. Yes, you can play it again, but the more and more you play one piece of music, the less beautiful it seems to us. There is something elusive about the beauty of music. It’s like the beauty of fall in New England. It’s wonderful to see the leaves turn color. But there’s a short window of time when we can see these beautiful leaves on trees. Before long, the trees are bare and it’s winter. That makes the beauty of this season more precious. Yet here’s also something kind of heartbreaking about it. In this world, we want to hang on to beauty, but we can’t. We want the world to be beautiful always because we have a sense that that is the way the world ought to be. Yet we find that we can’t hang on to beauty because we live in a now-fallen world. So we want beauty, but beauty never lasts, and that fact makes the experience of beauty a bittersweet one. David Skeel calls this the “paradox of beauty.” He writes, “This perception that beauty is real and that it reflects the universe as it is meant to be, but that it is impermament and somehow corrupted, is the paradox of beauty.” The story of Christianity accounts for this paradox. God made a beautiful world that was marred by sin. We now live in a fallen world. We can experience beauty, but it never lasts. We long for a perfect world where beauty remains, where it stays and we don’t get bored of it. And Christianity tells us that Jesus will make this perfect world—and perfectly beautiful—when he comes to restore all things. So even the elusive beauty of music is evidence for the Christian worldview.
One last thing: Music and singing tell us something about God. In one passage in the Old Testament, in the prophet Zephaniah, we’re told that God himself sings over his people. This is Zephaniah 3:14–20:
14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
17 The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
18 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
19 Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20 At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the Lord.
The prophet Zephaniah spoke of the day of the Lord (Zeph. 1:7), a day of judgment and a day of salvation. After judgment, God would restore his people, and defeat their enemies. Jesus has taken away the judgment of all who turn to him, trust him, and follow him. Yet we look forward to the day when all of this is completed, when Jesus defeats the last enemy, which is death (1 Cor. 15:26). As we wait for that day, we can know this: God exults over us with loud singing. Earlier, I said that we sing about the things we love. We praise what we love. God sings over his people because he loves them. Let us sing about God, because we love him in return.
- Russell Baker, “Observer; Hear America Listening,” New York Times, November 2, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/02/opinion/observer-hear-america-listening.html, accessed October 22, 1991. ↑
- Ben Ratliff, “Shared Song, Communal Memory,” New York Times, February 10, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/arts/music/10ratli.html, accessed October 22, 2016. ↑
- Stacy Horn, “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Time, August 16, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/08/16/singing-changes-your-brain, accessed October 22, 2016. ↑
- See James 5:13b: “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.” ↑
- See also Pss. 81:1; 95:1; 96:1–2; 98:1, 4–6; 105:2; 135:3; 147:7; 149:1. ↑
- The Greek word, ψαλμος, is used also in 1 Corinthians 14:26, where it may not refer to a Psalm of the Old Testament but to a song of praise or “hymn” (as in the ESV). ↑
- On pianos, the actually frequencies may vary due to something called equal temperament, which makes it possible to play any key and have it sound good. The frequencies I mention here would be found in just temperament, or just intonation, which is a more pure tuning. ↑
- Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 288. ↑
- “Music and Mathematics,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_and_mathematics, accessed October 22, 2016. ↑
- David Skeel, True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2014), 65. ↑
What are you training for? The apostle Paul told Timothy to train himself for godliness, which lasts forever. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:6-16.
I don’t know about you, but I love superhero movies. Perhaps that’s because superhero movies have clear villains who need to be defeated, and the heroes, however flawed they might be, prevail in the end. It’s nice to see good defeat evil.
It used to be that superheroes worked alone. Think of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, or the first Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. More recently, however, superheroes work together in teams. We’ve seen this in the X-Men movies and the Avengers movies and in Justice League, which features Batman and Wonder Woman, among others. These superhero movies have many different heroes coming together, each one using his or her superpowers to fight against a supervillain. The drama in these movies is not necessarily whether they will win; after all, the good guys always win in these movies. The drama comes from how the superheroes will work together. We, the members of the audience, wonder whether the superheroes will set aside their pride and coordinate their efforts, each using his or her strengths, in order to work together.
In one of the most recent of these movies, Avengers: Infinity War, one of the heroes acts selfishly. I don’t want to spoil the plot of the movie, so I’ll simply say that at one point some of the heroes are in a position to thwart the otherworldly villain named Thanos. The heroes are coordinating their efforts, working together to beat the bad guy, when one of the heroes lets his emotions get the better of him. And then Thanos gets away from their grasp.
These movies teach the importance of teamwork. Now, I realize not everyone may like superhero movies. But the same principles apply in other areas of life. Sports teams can have great athletes, but if they don’t work together, those teams won’t win. Coordinated teamwork is required in music, in the workplace, in politics, and even in the home. If we don’t work together, using our strengths and covering up each other’s weaknesses, we won’t succeed.
The same is true of the church. All Christians should work together for the glory of God. We are not all the same. We don’t all have the same talents, the same skills, and the same spiritual gifts. But we should all work together. When we don’t, the church doesn’t work well, and Jesus’ reputation suffers.
If you’re a Christian, my message to you today is to use the abilities that God has given you to help this church. If you’re visiting, if you’re not yet a Christian, you’re going to see a picture of how Christians should work together. We often fail to work together this way. We’re not Christians because we’re perfect, because we’re so good or because we’ve done a certain amount of good works. No, we’re not perfect; we’re perfect messes, saved only because God is merciful and gracious. But we should strive to be better.
To see how we should work together, we are going to look at 1 Corinthians 12. This is part of a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church that had a lot of problems, including problems getting along. We’ll begin by reading the first three verses of the chapter.
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
From what we can gather, the Corinthians had written a letter to Paul asking him some questions. One of those questions was about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are abilities that the Holy Spirit has given Christians so that they can serve the church. I think the language of “spiritual gifts” may sound a bit odd to non-Christians or anyone not familiar with our lingo. They’re called gifts because, really, according to the Christian worldview, everything we have is a gift from God. Even our natural abilities, whether that is strength or intelligence or a good personality, are gifts from God. They’re not things we’re entitled to or things that we have created. Sure, we can develop those traits through hard work. But even the ability to work hard is a gift from God. Spiritual gifts are abilities or inclinations that are given to us through the Holy Spirit when or after we come to faith in Jesus.
Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians understand spiritual gifts the right way. But he does this in an unexpected way. He first reminds them of their spiritual pasts. They used to be “pagans,” or, more literally, “Gentiles.” They once were not God’s people, but now they are God’s people. They used to worship false gods, idols, which can’t speak. Idols can’t speak the truth, and those who worship them become like them. But now they worship the true God, and the Holy Spirit is the one who causes them to say, “Jesus is Lord.” You can’t first make a true confession of faith without the Holy Spirit first causing you to become a new type of person. And Paul’s subtle point is this: All Christians are spiritual, because they all have the Holy Spirit.
Paul makes that more explicit in the next couple of paragraphs. Let’s read verses 4–13:
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Let’s break that down a bit. Paul says that in some ways believers are the same. They have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Or, as Paul puts it here, Christians are baptized in one Spirit into the same body, and each one was made to drink of one Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one, true, triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Christians serve the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Christians are empowered by the same God. Christians belong to the same body, the body of Christ.
So, in Christianity there is unity. They belong to the same God who has saved them from condemnation, empowered them, and adopted them into the one family of God. They are brought into the one body of Christ, and they all belong to each other. They are to serve the common good by serving each other in the church.
But Paul also emphasizes diversity. There are various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians. There are different forms of service. There are varieties of activities. What Paul means is that though Christians belong together and worship the same God, God has not made us all the same. We all have different strengths. We will serve the church in different ways, according to the way that God has made us and the way that God has gifted us once we have become Christians.
What are the various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians? Well, some of them are rather ordinary, and some are more miraculous. Some seem to enhance natural abilities, like teaching, whereas others are more supernatural. The gifts that Paul mentions in this chapter are: utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Later in the chapter, Paul will mention various people: apostles, prophets, and teachers. We might say that being qualified to serve in those offices is a gift from God, too.
Outside of 1 Corinthians, there are three other mentions of spiritual gifts. One is Romans 12:3–8, which is very similar to what we read here. This is what Paul writes in that letter:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Again, Paul stresses that there is one body and many members who have different functions and gifts. Again, we see unity and diversity. In Romans, Paul mentions prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, contributing, leading, and being merciful.
In another of Paul’s letter, Ephesians, Paul says that Jesus gave certain people to the church to build it up and to equip the saints for ministry. That list includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, or pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). The ability to serve in those functions is a gift from God, too.
Finally, we read this in 1 Peter 4:10–11:
10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
There, we see two gifts that Paul has already mentioned: speaking and serving.
We can group all of these gifts into different categories. First, we have what are called offices. That is, titles given to various people who have served in the church in different ways. Apostles were with Jesus personally and were sent by him to tell others about him. Since apostles had to see the risen Lord Jesus personally, and since Jesus hasn’t been on the earth for almost two thousand years, there are no more apostles. Prophets are those that spoke a message from God. It’s debated whether prophecy ended early in the history of the church or if it’s alive and well today. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But it’s worth considering what Paul says in Ephesians 2:20. There, he says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” You only lay a foundation once. Prophets might have served a temporary role, revealing God’s will while the various books of the New Testament were still being written. Once the Bible was complete, there is no need to have a once-and-for-all, authoritative word from God for all of his people. Whether there is a lesser role for personal revelation is where the debate is.
We certainly still have evangelists. They are people who tell others the evangel, which means “gospel” or “good news.” The gospel is the message concerning Jesus. It says that though all human beings (other than Jesus) have rebelled against God, have ignored him and dismissed him and failed to love, honor, and obey him, God made a way for his enemies to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who became a man over two thousand years ago (while still being God). Jesus is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always honored God by loving him and obeying him and representing him perfectly. Yet though Jesus never sinned, he was treated like a sinner. In fact, he was treated like an enemy of the state, as though he were a threat to both the Jewish leaders of his day and the Roman Empire. He was tortured and killed on a terrible instrument of death, the cross. Though people killed Jesus because they didn’t believe him and they hated him, ultimately Jesus’ death was God’s plan. Jesus bore the punishment that sinners deserve, so that everyone who trusts him will be forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God, adopted in to his family, and have eternal life. Trusting Jesus means believing his claims, that he is the Son of God, the God-man, the only one who can make us right with God. Trusting Jesus means knowing that he is Lord, King, Master, our ultimate authority.
This message needs to be shared, so we need evangelists. We also have pastors, or shepherds, sometimes also called overseers. They lead, guide, and protect the church. They also teach and preach. The gospel needs to be taught. So does the fullness of the Bible. Some parts are easier to understand, some parts are harder to understand. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to our lives. Pastors, who have the gift and ability to teach, help the church make sense of God’s word.
But there are many other ways to serve in a church. If we take all the spiritual gifts, we can group them into different categories. There are two types of gifts that deal with speaking. One category is related to teaching. This includes the utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge. We don’t know exactly what Paul means by utterances of wisdom and knowledge, since this is the only time in the Bible that these phrases occur. But the book of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). So, these utterances probably have to do with teaching people about God and how to respect him and live for him. That’s a lot of what pastors do. “The one who exhorts,” which is found in Romans 12:8, can also be translated as “the one who encourages” (the New International Version has something similar). You don’t have to be a pastor to encourage other Christians. There are some people in this church who clearly have the spiritual gift of encouragement.
Another category involves revelatory speech, or even supernatural speech. That includes prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Prophecy generally is considered “a word from the Lord.” It can be a message about the future, or a message of guidance or direction. As I said earlier, it’s debated whether this continues or not now that the whole of the Bible is complete. In fact, that happened by the end of the first century. The last book of the Bible to be written was probably the book of Revelation, most likely written in the mid-90s. In the early days of Christianity, people couldn’t simply turn to the New Testament to read God’s word, because it wasn’t complete yet, and even the books that were completed existed only in handwritten copies. (This was centuries before the advent of the printing press, which made mass production of books possible.) I think the best argument against modern-day prophecy is that since the Bible is complete, no more needs to be added to it, and the foundation of God’s word, revealed through apostles and prophets, has been laid once and for all. If there’s any kind of “prophecy” that exists today, it might be of a very limited nature, directing someone or perhaps a church to make a certain decision. But if someone comes to me and says, “I’m a prophet,” I’m very wary of that person. Ultimately, beliefs about prophecy rest on theological assumptions that I don’t have time to unpack right now.
Much of what can be said about prophecy could be said about tongues, which could be foreign languages that the speaker doesn’t know but is able to speak miraculously (as in the case of Pentecost in Acts 2), or some ecstatic language that no human knows, but is later interpreted by another. Some people believe this was only something that happened in the first century, and all other talking in tongues is either something faked or something that could even be prompted by evil spirits. I don’t see a biblical reason why speaking in tongues can’t happen today. But I also don’t think it needs to happen. However, I have heard stories about people speaking in tongues in places where there is a great amount of spiritual warfare, or where the gospel is being preached for the first time. So, I can’t immediately write off the idea that people can’t speak in tongues.
If these revelatory and miraculous gifts exist today—and I’m not sure that they do—they are probably quite rare. Therefore, I won’t spend any more time talking about them today.
Other gifts deal with leading. We have already considered the gift of being a pastor or teacher, which is related to the gift of teaching or speaking. In verse 28, Paul mentions “administrating.” The Greek word that is translated that way refers to piloting or steering a ship. This is the job of the pastor or pastors. It’s possible that pastors also discern between good and evil spirits, though this kind of spiritual discernment can be exercised by other people in the church.
Many of the gifts relate to physical service of some kind. Some of those might be miraculous in nature, like healing and working miracles. But most often, the spiritual gift of service will be a desire to serve in practical and mundane ways. In verse 28, Paul refers to it as “helping.” “Acts of mercy,” also found in Romans (12:8), may consist of physical acts of service to those in need. Or it may be an attitude of compassion toward the down and out. “Contributing” (Rom. 12:8) refers to those who are particularly generous.
One spiritual gift is simply “faith.” This doesn’t mean the kind of faith that every believer has, which is also a gift. It refers to a special ability to trust in God and his provision, particularly when things don’t look hopeful. We might call it “hope against hope.”
I could go into more detail with each of these. But hopefully you can see that there are a variety of spiritual gifts. They aren’t the same. Not everyone receives these gifts. But remember this, they are all given “for the common good (verse 7). “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (verse 11). We don’t decide which spiritual gifts we’ll have, and they are not for building ourselves up. They are for the benefit of the church.
And, as Paul will say next, each member of the church is needed. Let’s read verses 14–20:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
Paul’s point here is simple and it’s funny. The members of the church are like different parts of the body. We all need each other, just like the foot needs the whole body, and so does the hand, and the ear. Eyes are great, but if the whole body was an eye, we would be pretty useless. If we were all the same, the church wouldn’t function well. If we were all leaders and teachers, there would be no one to lead and teach. There would be no followers and students. If everyone served in physical ways, but no one was equipped to lead, the church would be chaotic. Every member of the church is needed, and every member of the church should use his or her spiritual gifts to add to the church, just as every part of the body has its purpose.
Paul continues this theme in the next several verses. Let’s read verses 21–26:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
When I described the various spiritual gifts, you probably noticed that some of them are more flashy or prominent. Some are related to things that are easily seen, like teaching or leading. Some are clearly miraculous. But some seem rather mundane. After all, service and helping could be a person’s desire to do dirty work to help the church or the people of the church. It might be cleaning a floor, or mowing an older person’s lawn, or something along those lines. But all the spiritual gifts are vital to the health of a church.
One person here once said that he was a foot, because he knew he wasn’t a leader. I’m not the head of the church, because the head of the church is Jesus. But in a way, I’m a head of this church. And I cannot say to that man, so the so-called foot, “I don’t need you.” No, I need you. The parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. We honor the parts of the body that the world might not honor, because each part is needed.
Each person must play his or her own role, according to the way God has made that person and according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given that person. Often, the gifts are just enhancements of natural abilities. People with the ability to teach probably already had some decent amount of intelligence, but the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to have special insight regarding God’s word. People with the gift of service already have bodies that work, but the Holy Spirit gave them a desire to use their bodies to serve God. We don’t need the foot to try to be the head, or the eye to try to be the ear. That often happens in small churches, and that isn’t right. We often thrust people into some kind of leadership role when they aren’t leaders. For some reason, this church has thought of service almost entirely in terms of committees, which is very strange, because committees are often tasked with making decisions, which is what leaders do. Pushing people into roles they’re not gifted to do is like exposing an “unpresentable part.” It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t work, and it often leaves people feeling frustrated. Each person should find a role in the body that suits them.
The truth is that if you’re a Christian, you belong to the body of Christ. Jesus himself isn’t divided; therefore, there shouldn’t be division in the body of Christ. Everyone should work harmoniously together. That’s why people who are divisive can be removed from a church, because divisiveness hurts the church. You should care about the rest of the body. If one member of the church is suffering, we should all suffer together. If one is honored, or has something to celebrate, we should all rejoice together. We’re in this together.
Let’s read the last portion of this chapter, verses 27–31:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Paul once again says that we are all members of the body of Christ, and that God has appointed people to serve in different ways. He then asks some rhetorical questions. Are all apostles? No. Are all prophets? No. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. And so on. We’re not all called to do the same kind of service, and if you are a foot, you’re not less valuable than a head. Paul does say to seek the so-called “higher gifts,” like prophesying (1 Cor. 14:1), but he points them to “a still more excellent way” in the following chapter, when he talks about love. If we have spiritual gifts but don’t use them to build each other up in love, we are nothing.
Now that we’ve gone through this chapter and talked about spiritual gifts, I want us to think about how this teaching relates to this church. As I said last week, the New Testament presupposes that Christians will belong to a local church in some recognizable way. And one of those ways is in service, in using one’s talents and spiritual gifts. I would urge us all to serve this church by using whatever God has given you. You may not know exactly what your spiritual gifts are, but I can tell you that a lack of commitment is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church as a consumer, merely taking when it’s convenient to you, is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church on your own terms and not on God’s doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.
Now, if you’re feeling God nudge you in the direction of service, you may wonder about your spiritual gift. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about this. This week, a timely article was written by a New Testament scholar and a pastor named Tom Schreiner. He says this: “if you get involved in the lives of others in your church and love as Jesus commanded, then you will discover your gift.” He then elaborates:
Some might say they still don’t know their gift. But knowing your spiritual gift isn’t as important as exercising your spiritual gift. Surely many believers in history didn’t know their spiritual gifts or think much about them, and yet they exercised those gifts in powerful ways. If you aren’t sure what your spiritual gifts are, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you give yourself to other believers in the church, you will inevitably be using your gifts.
I think that’s great advice. Just get involved and the spiritual gifts will become clear. If you see a need, try to meet it. Perhaps you’ll try something that doesn’t fit. That’s okay. In time, you’ll know what your gifts are. Usually, other people will recognize them in you. I can tell you that there people here who obviously have the gift of encouragement. Others are servants, ready to do physical tasks. I’m sure there are some who contribute generously. Some are particularly merciful.
My sense is that most of us will hear this message and walk away without thinking about how they can serve this church. I would urge you not to do that. This church needs your help. How can you serve? Let me list some possible ways very quickly. We need people to serve in ways that help our meetings every week. We need people to help take care of children. Someone offered to help a few weeks ago in that area, and I appreciate that. We need people to help count the money offered. We need people to maintain the building and grounds. We could use a lot more help with yard work and painting and cleaning and fixing things. We could use help from people who have skills with technology. We could use help from people who are evangelists, or people who have connections in our community that might help us do outreach. In a couple of months, we’ll participate in West Bridgewater’s Park Day again, and we need help with that. We need people to contribute generously to this church; at this point in time, we really need more help with that, just in order to maintain and improve this building, but also to do more ministry.
And that doesn’t include the ways that the members of the church might need help. I’m sure there are people here who need help in their homes, in their lives, with their families, with situations that are overwhelming them.
The point is that we should all be involved in the life of the church. God expects this. If you’re not doing this now, please come and talk to me. Talk to me about joining the church and seeing how you can get involved. Talk to the deacons. Talk to people around you. Don’t leave here today, shrug your shoulders, and forget about what you’ve heard. If you’re a Christian, remember that you were bought with a price, which is Jesus’ death on the cross. You were saved from condemnation, from eternal death, not so you can live a comfortable life, but so that you can serve God.
And if you’re not yet a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. You have heard the gospel message. Trust Jesus—trust that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. No one else can make you right with God. Jesus laid down his life for his people. You, too, can become part of the body of Christ today.
- The Corinthians would have been predominantly Gentile, not Jewish, Christians. Paul uses the Greek word for Gentiles (ethne) to describe what they were. They have now joined the true Israel by becoming Christians. ↑
- Thomas Schreiner, “How (Not) to Discover Your Spiritual Gifts,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-not-discover-spiritual-gifts/ ↑
I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you live in England. And imagine you have receive a letter in the mail. This is not just any letter, but an official letter from the British royal family. The letter informs you that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his new wife, Meghan Markle, will be relocating from Nottingham Cottage, on the grounds of Kensington Palace, to your house. That’s right, Prince Harry and his wife, two months after their marriage, are going to live with you. They want to live among the common people, and there’s no discussion, no debate. They’re not asking you if they can live with you. They’re just announcing that they will move in.
How would that change your life? What would you do? You would probably clean your house better than you ever have before. You might buy new furniture. You would be on your best behavior. You would probably make sure you had Harry and Meghan’s favorite foods. Of course, this enthusiasm might wear off over time. But what if you were told that the fate of England depended, at least in part, on how you managed your now-royal house? That would keep you motivated, wouldn’t it?
Okay, that’s a silly thing to imagine, I know. (I deliberately chose British royalty instead of American politicians because American politicians are now so hated.) But you get the point. If you had very special guests in your home, that would probably change how you live. And if you knew that the health of your house affected the whole nation, well, you would probably do your best to live in a right way. Of course, today’s British royals are really symbolic figures. Imagine if King Henry VIII was your royal guest. Now that was a monarch with power. And he was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, too.
Well, there is a greater reality that this should remind us of, one that isn’t just a silly thought experiment. If you are a Christian, you are part of the church, the body of Christ, God’s household, and God’s temple. You are part of God’s home on Earth, his temple where he is worshiped. You are even part of his family. And that should change the way you live. It should change how we live as individuals and how we conduct ourselves in this local church. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
Three months ago, we started to look at the book of 1 Timothy. It’s a letter written by Paul, an apostle, which is a fancy way of saying a special messenger of Jesus. Paul was commissioned by Jesus to travel throughout the Roman Empire, almost two thousand years ago, to tell other people about Jesus and to plant churches. He helped established a church in Ephesus, a significant city in the Roman Empire located in the western part of what we now call Turkey. Paul left his younger associate Timothy there, to make sure that the church was healthy. Specifically, Paul wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teachers and from bad behaviors. And he wanted Timothy to have the church function according to God’s design for the church. In other words, Paul wanted Timothy to have the church go the way God wanted it to go.
Today, after some recent detours from 1 Timothy, we get to the center of the letter, which states why Paul wrote it. Since we’re looking at only three verses of this book today, let’s read them all right now. This is 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.
Paul tells Timothy why he is writing this letter. Paul has left Timothy in Ephesus. While Paul hopes to come to Timothy soon, he realizes that he may not be able to get there quickly. So, he writes this letter to Timothy, “that . . . you may know how one ought to behave” in church. Timothy is to make sure the church is in good order. Specifically, he is to protect the church from false teachers and also from behavior that is not in line with the message of Christianity. Toward the beginning of the letter, Paul tells Timothy, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3). Some people had been teaching a different message, and they “made [a] shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim. 1:19).
But it’s not just right beliefs or right teaching that Paul is concerned about. He’s also concerned about right behavior. The two are related. If you have right beliefs, you should behave rightly. And there’s even more motivation to behave rightly, because the church is “the household of God.” The church isn’t a museum that houses memories of a dead god. No, the church is “the church of the living God.” God is alive, and he makes his home on Earth with his people.
This should blow our minds. God doesn’t just dwell with his people. God dwells in his people. That’s because the church isn’t a building; the church is a group of people. God dwells among the church, but he also lives in individual Christians. The third Person of God, the Holy Spirit, dwells in believers. If we are God’s house, shouldn’t we live accordingly?
The language of “God’s house” indicates that Paul has something particular in mind. God’s house is the temple. The language of “pillar” also indicates that Paul is thinking of a temple. The temple of God isn’t one special building that we all have to make a pilgrimage to. The temple of God is God’s people.
This is what Paul writes in another letter, a letter to the church in Ephesus, the same city where Timothy was when he received the letter that we’re now studying. In Ephesians 2, Paul says that there is one people of God, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, who were brought together by Jesus. In verses 18–22, he writes,
18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
The whole of the church is a temple, built upon the cornerstone, who is Jesus. The cornerstone determines the shape of the building; it is the most important stone. The temple is built upon God’s word; the New Testament was written by “apostles and prophets.” And this temple is growing, as more and more people are added to it. It is the “place” where the Holy Spirit dwells. It is the “place” where God is worshiped.
The apostle Peter says something similar in 1 Peter 2. He writes,
4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–5).
In the Old Testament, animal sacrifices were offered to God to make atonement for sin and to bring peace between God and his people. But the fact is that those sacrifices didn’t actually atone for sin. They foreshadowed the only sacrifice that could pay for human sin, which was the death of Jesus on the cross. So, sacrifices for sin are no longer made. But we do make spiritual sacrifices, offerings to God of praise (Heb. 13:15), good works (Heb. 13:16), and finances given to ministry (Phil. 4:18). In fact, our very lives are offered up to God as “living sacrifice[s]” (Rom. 12:1).
Getting back to 1 Timothy, Paul says that the church is also a “buttress.” The Greek word that’s translated as “buttress” only appears this one time in the New Testament, so it’s not clear exactly what it means. It could mean “stay,” “support,” or “bulwark.” It is a support to the truth. Paul has something specific in mind when he talks about the truth. He doesn’t just mean “truth” in general. In the previous chapter, Paul said that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). Paul means the gospel, or good news. That is the message of Christianity. Ultimately, Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). And the gospel is a message about him.
The church is meant to support, or uphold, the truth. The church isn’t the only support; that’s why Paul says that the church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth,” and not “the pillar and buttress of the truth.” Even if all Christians on Earth were to die, the message of Jesus would remain the truth, and that truth is witnessed to by the Bible and is supported also by the Holy Spirit. But the church is a guardian of the truth. We need to have a firm grip on the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. We need to teach the truth about God and his kingdom. We need to teach the truth about God’s plans for the world, how we can be reconciled to God, and how we should live for him.
That’s what Paul gets to next when he talks about the “mystery of godliness.” That’s an interesting phrase. When Paul uses “mystery,” he doesn’t mean it in quite the way that we do. We usually talk about “mystery” in terms of something we can’t figure out. Paul does mean that, but he doesn’t mean it’s a secret. Paul means that what we couldn’t figure out on our own, God has now revealed. We could not figure out God’s plans through unaided human reasoning. We couldn’t discover on our own how to be right in God’s eyes. But God has revealed that information to us, and that’s what Paul writes.
When Paul writes “the mystery of godliness,” he is stating the reason why we should live godly lives, or why we should be devoted to God. The reason is Jesus: who he is and what he has done for us. This is what the church needs to believe and confess.
What follows is probably a poem or a hymn:
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.
This is something that Paul probably didn’t write. It was probably an early hymn of praise, a poem that captured some of the important elements of Christianity. If you look at the translation that we use, the English Standard Version, you can see that the hymn is six lines long. The ESV divides it into two stanzas of three lines each. The New International Version divides it into three stanzas of two lines each. There’s some debate about the structure of the hymn, but either way, the message is clear.
The first line, “He was manifested in the flesh,” refers to Jesus’ incarnation, when the eternal Son of God added a second nature and became the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. In John’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus is the “Word of God.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, “he was manifested in the flesh.”
The last line of the hymn, “taken up in glory,” refers to Jesus’ ascension to heaven. After Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, he ascended back to heaven. So, the first and last lines bookend Jesus’ coming to earth and his leaving.
The middle lines indicate what Jesus did and how people have responded to him. They don’t tell us everything about what Jesus did, but they tell us some important things. The second line says that Jesus was “vindicated by the Spirit.” This is probably a reference to his resurrection. When Jesus died, it might have looked like he was a failure. If he stayed in the grave, we might wonder if his death had any meaning. But his resurrection vindicated him, showing that he is who he claimed to be, the Son of God. That’s what Paul writes at the beginning of his letter to the Romans:
1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1–6).
The resurrection, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, declared that Jesus is the Son of God, that he has power over sin and death, and that the sins of his people have been paid in full.
The third line of the hymn says that Jesus was “seen by angels.” This could possibly refer to the fact that angels appeared at Jesus’ resurrection. It could be a reference to the apostles, who saw Jesus, because the word “angel” can also mean “messenger.” But it more likely refers to angels in the spiritual realm. The risen Christ was seen by people and supernatural beings.
The fourth and fifth lines seem to belong together. Jesus was “proclaimed among the nations” and “believed on in the world.” Apostles like Paul and Peter told people throughout the Roman Empire about Jesus, and many people believed in him.
Now, this is just a poem. It’s not a very detailed statement of systematic theology. So, more could be said about who Jesus is and what he came to do. Who is Jesus? He is God. More specifically, he is the second Person of the triune God, the Son of God. And he became man. So, we say he is the God-man. Why did Jesus come into the world? Paul doesn’t explicitly mention Jesus’ death on the cross. Why did Jesus come into the world? “To save sinners,” as Paul says in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:15; cf. Matt. 1:21). How did he do that?
Jesus saves sinners by fulfilling God’s plans for humanity and then dying for the sins of rebellious human beings. God made human beings in his image and likeness. That means we were made to represent God, to reflect God’s character, to rule over his creation, to worship him, and to love and obey him, the way children would love and obey a perfect father. But from the beginning, human beings have turned away from God, living life on their own terms instead of his. Instead of building our world around God and accepting the role he has given us, we build our worlds around ourselves, rejecting his authority. The rebellion of the first human beings created a separation between God and human beings.
Jesus is the one who closes that gap. He came to fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He is the perfect human being who always loves and obeys his Father. Yet though he never sinned, he died in the place of sinners, bearing the penalty that they deserve. All who believe in Jesus, who trust him, have their sins forgiven, are adopted into God’s family, and have eternal life. Though they die, they will live with God forever in a new creation, which will be established when Jesus returns to Earth to bring history as we know it to an end.
This is the “mystery” revealed to the church. This is the reason why we should pursue godliness. We do that because God first pursued us.
Our behavior should line up with the reality that we are God’s family, part of his very household. We don’t behave well in order to become part of his house. No, we are chosen by God, the gospel was preached to us, we believed, and we were adopted by God into his family. This is not because of merit. It’s not something we deserved. It’s not because we were so lovable that God just had to come rescue us. It’s not because we’re so good, because we’ve first cleaned up our house. No, it is all a gift from God, because he is love.
As I said earlier, we are God’s temple, the place where he resides on Earth, the place where he is worshiped, where we offer up spiritual sacrifices. God wants a beautiful temple to live in. The fact that he chooses to live in us is amazing. But God wants us to be purified, to become a house fitting for a king.
In his wonderful book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis describes what it’s like to become a Christian. He likens the Christian life to being a house that is undergoing renovation:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and to live in it Himself.
God wants to refashion us so that we are a good house, children who act like our Father, people who represent the family name well, a great building for an even greater God to live in. As Lewis says, sometimes this refashioning hurts.
Our behavior should line up with what we profess to believe. But that doesn’t just mean how we live our individual lives. The way that we “do church” should line up with Scripture. That’s what Paul stresses throughout the letter of 1 Timothy. The problem is that so many churches aren’t organized and run according to God’s word. It’s no surprise that so many churches abandon “the mystery of godliness,” forsaking the truth of the gospel.
The reality is that while the truth should change how we live, often how we live changes what we think is true. Many people forsake the gospel because they don’t want to live the way God wants us to. Some people reject the truth of the Bible because of Christianity’s sexual ethics. They may reject Christianity outright, or they may revise the Bible to suit their desires. In that case, sex is an idol, a false god, and truth is put on the altar and sacrificed. Some people reject Christianity because they worship the idol of power, or of money. They don’t want God to be King, or they don’t want to be told to give money away to the church and to the poor. Some people sacrifice the truth to the idol of being acceptable in the world’s eyes. They are afraid of being seen as backward or foolish, so they alter Christianity so that it fits with the spirit of the age. But, as one person wisely said, those who marry the spirit of the age will soon become widows (or widowers), because that spirit always changes.
When some view of the good life, some view of human flourishing, puts anything other than God at the center of reality, truth will be sacrificed and an idol will be worshiped. This is what we rebellious human beings do. So, we need to hold on to the truth.
Doctrine gets a bad reputation among some people. The straw man argument is that those who care about doctrine have reduced Christianity to some cold, lifeless, dead orthodoxy, a religion of facts but not a living religion of the heart. But doctrine simply means “teaching.” Everyone has doctrine. Everyone has a creed of some kind. And our doctrine will either be true, or some mixture of truth and falsehoods, or completely false.
If we personally know the living God, we will know what he is like. We’ll know facts about him. If we really know God, we can’t fail to know who he is. We’ll know if he is triune. If we really know Jesus, we’ll know he is divine. To claim that Jesus was merely a man or prophet shows that we don’t really know who he is.
A few weeks ago, I was in Washington State, where I used to live. I was there to attend a friend’s funeral. After the service, I happened to meet someone who grew up in my hometown of Wenham. He is the same age as my oldest brother, Ted. I knew that they were in the same high school class and they both played on the basketball team. I also knew he lived somewhere north of Seattle and that he was a firefighter, just as my friend was. But I don’t recall every having personally met this man, named David.
When we met, he told me that both he and Ted put the same Scripture, Proverbs 3:5–6, under their high school yearbook photo; went to Gordon College; and went on the same mission trip.
But what if David started saying some things that didn’t line up with what I know to be true of Ted? What if he said, “Yeah, I remember Ted had that beautiful sister. What happened to her?” If he said that, I would say, “Uh, we didn’t have a sister.” He might say, “Oh, I must have been thinking of someone else. But Ted drove that awesome Corvette, right?” “No, but he drove a 1970s Dodge Dart for a while.”
If this went on for a while, I would start to wonder if we were talking about the same person. Either his memory would be really mixed up or he was thinking about a different person.
And that’s how it is with Jesus. Some people preach “another Jesus,” which is something that Paul noted elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:4). Mormons don’t believe the same Jesus we do. Muslims don’t think Jesus is the Son of God, that he is divine. They don’t believe he died on the cross, and therefore they deny the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus isn’t God. Are they really talking about the same Jesus?
If we know Jesus personally, we’ll know facts about him, just the way that if we’re married, we’ll know facts about our spouse. We may not know everything, but we’ll know important things. Christianity is ultimately a relationship, and real relationships must be built on truth and love.
And that knowledge should lead to right behavior. Theology, our knowledge of God, must be lived out. One theologian said, “Theology is all about knowing how to sing the song of redemption: to know when to shout, when to mourn, when to be silent and when to hope. But in order to enjoy the song and sing it well, we must learn the words and the music.” Think about that for a moment. If you don’t know the Bible and how to understand it, you’re like someone who doesn’t know the words and the tune of the song you’re supposed to be singing. The song is the Christian life. You’re supposed to sing it! But how can you sing it if you don’t know the words and the tune? You’re like the person in the shower singing a song they heard on the radio and making up words as they go. It’s funny when people get the words to a song wrong—“Hold me closer, Tony Danza”—but it’s not funny when people get words about God wrong.
So, know the tune. Know the words. And then sing the song! Sing it at home. Sing it at work. Sing it when you’re running errands. Sing it when we gather. Behave as if you’re God’s house, God’s building, God’s temple. Because if you are a Christian, that’s what you are.
And if you’re not a Christian, I would urge you to put your trust in Jesus. The true Jesus is the one revealed in the pages of the Bible. He is not the Jesus of our imagination. No one could make up Jesus, because he confronts us all. He challenges each one of us. He calls us out on our sin. He teaches us a new way to live. He tells us to lay down our lives and to love our enemies. No one would invent that. Jesus tells us that he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that the way we respond to him is truly the way we respond to God. When Jesus prayed to the Father on the night before he died, he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
- Other hymns in the New Testament include Phil. 2:6–11 and Col. 1:15–20. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 176. ↑
- Kelly M. Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians: Why and How to Study Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 22-23. ↑
- In an episode of the sitcom Friends, one of the characters mistakenly thought that Elton John’s song “Tiny Dancer” featured those words. ↑
Everything created by God can be enjoyed if used in the right way. We sin when we use God’s creation in the wrong way, when we make an idol of something created, or if we forbid entirely the things God has made. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:1-5.
When you have young kids in your home, you find yourself saying certain things quite frequently. One of those sayings is, “Knock it off!” That’s a favorite saying of my wife. My most often frequent saying is probably quite simply, “Stop it!” There’s another saying I have: “That’s not a toy!” I might say that whenever my sons start to play with something that catches their eye, like a computer or a hammer or a staple gun. Okay, I’m joking with that last item. My sons are now at an age when they’re naturally curious, and there are times when playing with something that’s not a toy can be destructive and even dangerous.
My wife used to allow our kids to play with some items in a drawer in the kitchen. It’s kind of our culinary junk drawer, where we store anything from measuring cups and measuring spoons to spatulas and other assorted kitchen tools. About three and a half years ago, I found Caleb playing with a crinkle cutter. It’s a little tool that makes crinkle-cut slices of potatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables. It’s designed for a purpose: it makes these crinkle-shaped cuts. It doesn’t do anything else. Caleb was running the edge of it along my nice, black, lacquer-finished piano. Now there is a nice, thin, long scratch made by the end of the crinkle-cutter. I guess I should be thankful that his brother doesn’t have a crinkle-cut finger. But I wasn’t thankful at the time. My boy had used something in a way that didn’t line up with its purpose.
Now, that’s not very serious; there are worse things than a scratch in a piano. But there are times when a tool, when used as a toy, could become quite dangerous. And there are times when things that are not used according to their purposes become very dangerous, even deadly. Think about the drugs we call opioids. Many of us have heard that we’re living in the midst of an opioid crisis or epidemic. Opioids are the kind of drugs that trace their origins back to opium, which is made from the opium poppy, a flowering plant. Opium is what makes morphine, a powerful painkiller. It’s also what can be processed into synthetic opioids, prescription painkillers that help people with acute and/or chronic pain. It’s a good thing to have painkillers. Seven years ago, I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The L5/S1 disc impinged on the sciatic nerve on my right side, which created a great amount of pain in my butt, hip, and leg. I spent the better part of three months lying down on the floor. I also took painkillers for three months. They didn’t eliminate the pain, but they reduced it greatly. When I had surgery, I was given some morphine afterwards. I have seen people dying on morphine, which eased the pain of their last days, hours, and minutes. Anything that is safe and can reduce this kind of pain is a good thing.
But some people get addicted to prescription painkillers. Millions of people misuse prescription painkillers. Millions in the world are using them illegally. And thousands die from overdoses every year. In 2016, there were 42,249 people who died of opioid overdoses. Of those, 20,145 died from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) and 14,427 died of natural or semi-synthetic opioids. Opium can also be processed into heroine, an illegal drug, which killed 15,446 people in 2016.
So, something that occurs in nature, the opium poppy, can be produced into chemicals that relieve pain and suffering. Those chemicals, when taken in excess, can also kill. And the same natural thing can be processed into a chemical that is illegal, highly addictive, destructive, and deadly.
This reveals an important biblical truth. Everything that exists in nature can be used for good or for bad purposes. God made these things good. But when they are misused, the result is very bad. We can misuse things by using them in a way contrary to God’s design for them. We can misuse things my making an idol of them. And we can also misuse good things by avoiding them and telling others not to use them.
We see all of this in the passage that we’ll look at today, 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Three months ago, we started to look at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the New Testament. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. Paul left Timothy in the city of Ephesus while he was gone. He wanted Timothy to make sure that the church in Ephesus was healthy. In particular, he wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teaching. In today’s passage, we see some of the content of their wrong teaching. So, with that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do today. I’m going to first read the passage, explain what it means, and then think a bit more deeply about how we can rightly appreciate and use the things that God has created.
Here is 1 Timothy 4:1–5:
1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
Paul says that the Holy Spirit has indicated that in “later times” people will depart from the truth faith and teach false things. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God; he is the one who empowers some people to speak the word of God. He is the one who led Paul to write this letter. And he spoke through apostles and prophets to indicate that in “later times,” there would be false teachers.
What does Paul mean by “later times”? Well, he means now. And I don’t mean the twenty-first century. I mean the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. If you look carefully at the New Testament, you’ll see this. For example, Paul writes something a bit similar in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, he writes,
1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
I think that people have always been lovers of self and money, they’ve always been proud, and so forth. But if Paul meant that people would only be this way in the period right before Jesus returned to earth, he wouldn’t say, “Avoid such people.” Timothy wouldn’t have to worry about those people, because they would come much later in time. So, the “last days” and the “later times” are the long period between Jesus’ first and last coming.
Now, what prophecy is Paul referring to? Peter and Jude make a reference to prophecies about false teachers (2 Pet. 3:1–3; Jude 17–18). Jesus said that in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, “many will fall away” and “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt. 24:10–11). Paul may also be referring to something he said earlier in time, recorded in the book of Acts. While speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus (the same city where Timothy was located), he said,
29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30).
Paul knew that false teachers would come, now they are in this church, and now they are leading people to depart from the faith. Literally, these people have apostatized. These false teachers are insincere liars, which means that they know they are teaching false things. They’re not just making honest mistakes. They have consciences that are seared, which likely means that they are branded. It’s possible that their branding means they are marked as belonging to Satan, the devil. That would make sense of the why they are associated with “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” That may sound extreme, but it reminds us that all lies ultimately come from Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Bible teaches us that there is more to reality than what we can see. There are spirits, both angels and demons, who are at work to either support or fight against God’s plans.
False teachers are influenced by Satan, and they can appear to look godly, though their message is wrong. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote of other false teachers. About them, he wrote,
13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).
So, what was this “teaching of demons” that these false teachers taught? Was it some secret occult practice? Was it teaching people to bow down before some shrine or statue of a god? Was it the first-century equivalent of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”? No, not at all. These teachers “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” That’s surprising. They were telling people not to get married—and probably to be celibate. They were also telling people not to eat certain foods. They were probably trying to tell people to maintain the dietary laws found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11). I say that because these same false teachers had an incorrect understanding of the Old Testament law, something Paul mentioned in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:3–11).
In short, it seems like they taught that certain practices could lead people astray, that marriage, perhaps because of the issue of sex, might somehow be inherently bad, that eating certain foods might corrupt people. We would think that false teachers would teach people to go have all the sex they want and eat all the foods they want. But this is quite the opposite.
Yet these false teachers were wrong. “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The problem isn’t marriage or certain foods. The problem, really, is inside of us, not the created things that we find in the world.
To understand this, we need to have a grasp of the story of the Bible, or what we might call a basic biblical worldview. To get a quick handle on that story, we need to remember four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.
First, there is creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). When God made things, he saw that they were good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). There is no hint of created things, or physical things, being bad. God ordered and designed the material world to function in a good way. Other philosophies or religions teach that material things are somehow worse than so-called “spiritual” or immaterial things. But this isn’t what we see in the Bible. The goal of the biblical story is not to escape from the material world.
Second, there is the fall. Something bad happened, something that distorts us and our experience of this world. The first human beings turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and his word. They didn’t listen to his commandments. They believed the lie that God was keeping good things from them. They didn’t accept God’s design for them and his world. As a result, the power of rebellion that we call sin invaded the world. This created a separation between God and human beings, but it also creates a separation between human beings, and within human beings. There is something broken in us. There is something broken in the material world, too. But that doesn’t mean that the stuff that God created is inherently bad.
Jesus taught us what is wrong with us. He said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Then he said,
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18b–23).
What is wrong with us is our hearts, our disordered desires. Those disordered desires lead us to commit sins, wrong actions. The things that God made have right uses, but we end up using things the wrong way. And because we have fouled up God’s good creation, and because God wants to restore his good creation, God has every right to evict us from his good creation forever. In other words, he has every right to condemn us. That’s bad news.
But there’s good news. And that is redemption. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent his unique Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is therefore truly God and truly man. Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity. He is the perfect image bearer of God, the perfect representative, the perfect human ruler, the perfect worshiper, the perfect lover of God and lover of other people, the perfect Son of God. The fact that Jesus became a real man shows that the material world is not inherently bad. It shows that created things can be perfect. Though Jesus was and is perfect, he was rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He never did anything wrong to deserve such treatment. But people hated him and didn’t believe him. And yet this was all God’s plan to put the sins of his people on his Son’s shoulders, and it was the Son’s plan to bear the righteous judgment of sin on behalf of those who trust him. All who believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did are forgiven of their sins, adopted as God’s children, and granted eternal life. People who trust Jesus receive the Bible as the word of God and try to live their lives according to what the Bible says we should do in these “last days.”
The end of the is the restoration of the universe. In the end, God’s people won’t live in “heaven.” They will live in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), a new creation. It will be a physical world, a place where there is real food and there will be a real marriage, though not between mere human beings. The real marriage is between God and his people, Jesus and his church. This is a metaphor, of course; not all that occurs within a human marriage occurs with the divine marriage. But it captures something of the beauty, exclusivity, faithfulness, and love of the relationship that God has with his people.
So, the story of the Bible teaches us that created things aren’t inherently bad. Instead, it teaches that sinful people have a way of failing to use the things of God’s creation rightly. We fail when we distort God’s good gifts, using them for wrong purposes. When God says, “That’s not a toy!” we should listen. He knows better than we do. We fail when we make those gifts into an idol, something that is ultimate in our lives, an object of worship. Today, when people take one aspect of creation and build their lives around it, instead of building their lives around God, they don’t think they’re worshiping. They don’t think that thing, whatever it is, is an idol. But that’s really what it is. It is the functional object of their worship. Yet we were made to worship God alone. We also fail when we act as though God’s good gifts are inherently bad.
We can misuse anything. We can turn anything into an idol. And we can overcorrect by avoiding good things.
It’s not likely that we’ll do this with food, but it’s still possible to make that mistake today. People misuse food by eating too much of it, or by eating too much of things that should be eaten in moderation, like desserts. People can turn food into an idol when their lives revolve around gourmet food, or turn to food for comfort and security and happiness, or when they become obsessed about what they eat (probably for health reasons). I’m not sure that people forbid eating certain foods for religious reasons, though there are orthodox Jews and Muslims who abide by certain dietary codes.
We can do this with alcohol. This is what Psalm 104 says about wine:
14 You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15 and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Ps. 104:14–15).
Israelites were allowed to have “strong drink” when they celebrated feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:26). And the new creation is described as being a “feast of well-aged wine” (Isa. 25:6). Jesus ever turned water into wine (John 2), so it can’t be inherently bad.
But what do we do with alcohol? Many people drink too much, and this causes great destruction and death. Some people can’t live without it. Others then turn around and overreact, saying that all drinking is inherently sinful. Now, it’s true that the Bible says that drunkenness is wrong (Eph. 5:18 is but one example). But Scripture doesn’t forbid all drinking.
We can do this with marriage. Marriage is a good gift created by God. But we misuse it in many ways. God designed marriage to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet we redefine marriage; many ancient societies had polygamy: one man had many wives. Marriage is meant to be exclusive, so that the husband and wife do not have sex with anyone else; many people have committed adultery. Of course, there is the problem of divorce. And now there is the problem of redefining marriage, so that it’s not necessarily a union of one man and one woman.
Some people create an idol of marriage. They believe that their spouse will complete them. They believe their spouse will fulfill all their desires and dreams. Spoiler alert: the best spouse will never, ever do that.
Very few people forbid marriage for religious reasons. One group, the Shakers, did. But it’s hard to keep a religious movement growing when you don’t have marriages that produce babies. The last remaining Shaker community in America is located in New Gloucester, Maine, and it has only two members.
We certainly do misuse sex. It is a good gift, meant to be experienced only within marriage. Yet we have it outside of marriage. We reduce other human beings to “sex objects,” as things to be consumed. We turn sex into an idol, the ultimate pleasure or experience. And some people can give the impression that sex is somehow inherently bad, though it’s not.
We can do the same thing with work. We misuse work when we don’t work, or when we mistreat people who work for us. Work is distorted wherever slavery exists. Work becomes an idol for some people; they find their identity and satisfaction in life through work. Some people act as if work is a necessary evil, something that only exists because sin exists. But work existed before sin entered into the world. God gave Adam a job to do (Gen. 2:15). So, work is not inherently bad.
The same could be said of money or possessions. We misuse money by spending it on the wrong things, or by stealing. We’re supposed to use things and love people, but we turn this around and use people and love things. Wealth is a great idol. It makes the false promise to us that if only we were rich, we would be happy and secure. Some people then act as if having money, or owning anything, is evil. But possessions are gifts from God. They can be appreciated. They can be used for God’s glory. We use money to fund ministry. Any church, any missionary endeavor needs some level of funding. We can use our possessions to bless others. For example, we can use our homes to house guests, to have people over to get to know them, to provide a safe place for our family. A home can become an idol when we put too much money into it, when all our thoughts and energies and desires are wrapped up in having the perfect house. But a house is a good thing if used rightly.
As you can see, we can misuse anything. We take the good things that God has made and use them wrongly, or turn them into ultimate things, which then become the center of our lives. That place should be reserved for God alone. If we overreact and then refuse to use the gifts that God has given to us, or if we refuse to enjoy good things, we’re committing another error. We are denying the good things that God has given to us. When we reject the gift, we’re rejecting the Giver.
Our only hope is redemption. Our only hope is turning to Jesus for our salvation. Only Jesus can reconcile us to God. Only Jesus provides forgiveness of sins. And only Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, who starts to change our distorted desires. The Spirit can rearrange our loves so that we enjoy God’s gifts and use them rightly, the way that God designed them to be used. Without God’s help, we turn tools into toys, and toys into tools. Without the Spirit, we turn people into things, and things into idols. But when we come to Jesus, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit and seek to obey God’s instructions for life, we can begin to use the things that God has made in a right way. We can then enjoy a meal and not only think, “This steak is great!” Instead, we’ll also think, “How great is the God who made cows that we can turn into steak!” That may seem silly, but it’s not. The difference is big. If we see all of reality as designed by God, we can thank God for his good gifts and use them rightly.
If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you turn to him. Only he makes us right with God. And when we have a relationship with him, our vision of life starts to change. We start to see things rightly. We start to see everything with reference to God. He alone gives us eyes to see the truth and the power to live according to the truth.
Christians, remember that Paul says that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Let’s thank God for those good things. They were made good, so let’s not call God a liar by believing they’re not. And they’re made holy through God’s word and prayer. That is, the gospel message—this message of Jesus that we talk about—shows us how all things can be holy, consecrated to God. And when we pray to God, thanking him, asking him to help us to use his gifts wisely, all things can be enjoyed in the right way. Everything, even enjoying a meal, can be an act of worship. Elsewhere, Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
Our final hope is the restoration of the world, the transformation of the creation. It will be a feast, a world of good gifts, the greatest of which is God—his presence and his blessing. The prophet Isaiah said,
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
7 And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).
- http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-opioid-overdose-deaths-20180329-htmlstory.html ↑
- https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates ↑
- The phrase “will depart from” is a translation of ἀποστήσονταί (apostēsontai). ↑
The church is God’s household and temple. It is also a guardian of truth. That’s why right theology and right behavior matter in the life of the Christian and the church. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
All Christians should serve as members of a church, using their abilities and spiritual gifts for the benefit of the church and the glory of God. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Corinthians 12.
Every week, people seem to be freaking out over something political, or some event that has political ramifications. This week, people were freaking out over the news that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court. That means that our president, Donald Trump, will be able to nominate a new judge to fill Kennedy’s open slot, which means that Trump will be able to place two judges on the Supreme Court in two years. Anthony Kennedy was known as the swing vote on the Court. Though he was nominated by a Republican president, Ronald Regan, he often voted in favor of so-called liberal decisions. If he’s replaced by a conservative judge, that means there will be five conservative judges on the Supreme Court bench. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 85, retires or dies in the next two years, Trump could place three judges on the Supreme Court.
Now, all of this means that some people are happy, and other people are upset, depending on their politics. Isn’t it strange how so much can hinge on one person? Really, it’s a sign that our government isn’t working the way it ought to be. In fact, that so much can hinge on the presidency shows that our government isn’t working well. Congress should make the laws, the president and his administration should make sure the laws are carried out, and the Supreme Court should determine if laws (and their execution) are constitutional. But the reality is things aren’t work well, and big decisionx are often made by one individual. And that’s strange in a country of over 300 million people.
What about the church? Are all decisions made by one person, or a small group of people? What role does the congregation play in making decisions? I have spent considerable time in this series talking about the role of pastors, or elders, or overseers. (Again, these three terms are used of the same people.) I stressed that they are the shepherds of the church, the leaders. But does this mean that all decisions are made by them? Can the congregation make decisions?
Today, I’m going to talk about the role the congregation plays in making decisions. And since it’s hot and we’re also going to take the Lord’s Supper, I’ll try to make this sermon as short as possible. So, I’ll tell you up front what the Bible seems to say about the congregation’s role in making decisions. In short, the congregation helps decide who is in, and who is out. The congregation has some role to play in determining who can join a church or who must leave a church. The congregation may also play a role in affirming who can serve as ministers.
To see this, we’re going to look at some passages in the Bible. The two most important ones we’ll look at are 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2. We’ll also take a peak at some other passages along the way.
So, let’s first read 1 Corinthians 5. This is part of a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the church in the city of Corinth, part of what we now call Greece.
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
6 Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
Let’s quickly review what we see in this passage. Paul calls out some sinful behavior in the Corinthian church. He says that “a man has his father’s wife.” He means that a man is having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. This is probably his stepmother, because Paul doesn’t say “his mother,” which would be even more shocking. Still, this is very bad, the kind of behavior that not even the pagans tolerated. And that’s saying something, because sexual practices in the Roman Empire would make us blush.
What I want us to pay attention to today is the fact that Paul addresses the whole church. He’s not just writing to the pastors, the elders, or overseers. He’s not saying, “Hey, pastors, why have you allowed this? Kick this man out of the church!” No, he says the whole church is failing. Instead of mourning, the people are boasting and are arrogant. Maybe they’re boasting about how tolerant they are, or how diverse they are. But Paul knows that what this man is doing is evil, and even a little evil has a way of producing a big effect, just as a little yeast can leaven a large amount of dough.
So, Paul tells the church, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” That sounds intense, doesn’t it? What does it mean to hand someone over to Satan? Well, at the least it means removing that person from the protection of the church. Paul wanted this man to be excommunicated, at least for a time. Whenever the man would be removed from the church, he would no longer experience the blessings of the church. His sin would be exposed. He was to be treated like a nonbeliever. Perhaps Paul thought that God would punish this man in some physical way, by using Satan to afflict the man with an illness. But Paul is clear that he wants the man to be saved from condemnation.
This episode shows what is at stake in the church. The great problem of humanity is our separation from God. Our problem is that we start out life with a broken relationship. Something is wrong with us, a power that corrupts us and keeps us from God. That something is sin, the power of evil and rebellion that leads us to reject the one true God and replace him with something else as our ultimate authority. Sin leads to condemnation. Why? Because God doesn’t want evil spreading throughout the world. He is patient. He is merciful. He puts up with our sin. But he won’t put up with it forever. There will be a time when he calls us all to account, when all our sins are judged. And we will pay for them.
We will pay—or someone else will. But the only person who can pay for our sins, besides us, is Jesus. He is the Son of God, who has always existed, through whom God the Father created the universe, and who also became a human being over two thousand years ago. He is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always obeyed God perfectly because he has always loved God perfectly. Yet he was treated like a criminal, like an enemy of the state and of the Jewish religion. And he was killed, put to death on a cross. This was because people hated him and didn’t believe him. But it was also God’s plan, to have his Son bear the punishment of sinners. All who turn to Jesus in faith, who trust that he is who he claimed to be and that he has accomplished what the Bible says he has, have their sins paid for. They are reunited to God. They are forgiven of all wrongdoings. And though they die, they will rise from the grave when Jesus returns, just as Jesus rose from the grave on the third day.
But since Christians are united to Jesus, and since the church is where Jesus dwells on earth, by means of the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t keep sinning. Of course, we will sin. We still wrestle with our old nature. But we shouldn’t want to sin and as a church we cannot allow flagrant, egregious sins to occur. Sin has a way of corrupting the whole church. And more than that, it makes Jesus look bad. So, the church should monitor such behavior. Paul says, “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” He doesn’t mean judge in an ultimate way. Neither you nor I can determine if someone truly knows Jesus. God knows the heart; we don’t. But Paul means judge in the sense of evaluate. We certainly can look at someone’s behavior and say, “This isn’t right. This isn’t what Christians should do.” Notice that Paul says we should make a distinction between what happens in the church and the world. Christians in America have this a bit backward. We spend all our time judging those outside the church and very little time judging those inside the church. Paul says we can’t separate ourselves from non-Christians, or else we would have to leave the whole world. But we can separate unrepentant sinners from the church, and that’s what we should do. “Purge the evil from your midst”—that’s a command that is repeated throughout the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24).
What Paul is commanding here is no different than what Jesus taught his disciples. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus told the disciples how the church should deal with sin. This is what he says in Matthew 18:15–20:
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Jesus says that if a person has sinned against you, it is your responsibility to approach that person directly. Don’t gossip. Go to that person and point out his or her wrong. If they see the error of their ways, “you have gained your brother”—or your sister. But if that person will not listen, then things escalate. The next step is to take another person or two. These people will bear witness to whether the sinning brother or sister is repentant or not. But if that person still won’t listen, then he or she should be brought before the church. And if they refuse to listen to the judgment of the whole church, then they should be removed and treated like a non-Christian.
In both cases, the goal is to bring the sinning person to repentance. But there is another goal, which is to purify the church. And when the whole church says to a sinning person, “This kind of behavior won’t be allowed here,” it sends a strong message.
It’s not just flagrantly immoral behavior that deserves excommunication. That is, it’s not just things like sexual immorality, or violence or stealing or things we think are “really bad.” Paul also says that people who are divisive should be avoided. In Romans 16:17–19, part of another letter that Paul wrote to a different church, Paul writes,
17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.
Divisive people can be obviously divisive, the kind of people who complain and argue and fight. But they can also be quietly divisive. Either way, divisions in the church threaten the health of the church, and divisive people must be avoided and, if necessary, removed from the church. The same is true of people who teach false doctrine. Paul tells the church in Galatia that anyone who comes teaching a different message is accursed (Gal. 1:8–9). And in 1 Timothy, Paul said that he removed a couple of men who were blaspheming (1 Tim. 1:18–20).
In each case, Paul says that the church should be involved. In another passage, 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul says that a majority of the church had brought a punishment upon a person. This may or may not be the same person that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 5. In this case, the person has attacked Paul personally, but he has also caused pain to the whole church. If that were the man of 1 Corinthians 5, it’s likely that the man resisted any correction, attacked Paul’s authority, and then later the church excommunicated him. But it could be someone else. But, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the punishment was voted on. Let’s read what Paul writes:
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Here, it seems as though the rebuke of the whole church has brought this person to a godly sorrow. Paul worries that if the punishment continues, it might produce “excessive sorrow.” So, he asks the church to forgive and comfort him. If not, they are playing into Satan’s schemes. Satan wants a divided church; he also wants an unforgiving church.
Now, I have to make this point: the fact that Paul says a majority of the church brought the punishment upon the sinner means that there is a definite number of people who voted. And, I would argue, it means that there should be definite church membership, or a roll of members.
Some people don’t like the idea of church membership. They think it is unbiblical because there is no one verse in the Bible that says, “You must officially join a local church.” It’s true that there is no one verse that says so much. But the concept of an official membership of a local church is presupposed in several passages. This is one of them. Who could vote against the unrepentant sinner? Did they take a vote on a Sunday, and everyone who showed up, including people who came for the first time, vote? That doesn’t make sense. But what about someone who had come for a month? Or someone who came to the church for a few years but refused to join and officially submit to the authority of the church?
Joining a local church is important because it’s a sign of commitment. Joining a church says, “This is my church. I belong here. I submit to the leaders of the church. I commit to these people. I will serve and love them. I am also committed to the spiritual health and purity of the church. And if someone starts messing with the church, I am prepared to take action.” That’s a big deal. I think churches suffer greatly because people don’t make that kind of commitment. And I think a lack of commitment to a local church speaks volumes about the level of commitment people have to Jesus.
What we have seen so far is that the congregation has a role to play in bringing discipline to unrepentant members. And what Paul writes suggests that there was an official vote. I think, by implication, that the reverse is true: when people officially join a church, the church should vote on that. The reason is that members of a church may know more than the pastors know about a person, their reputation, and their behaviors. When a potential member is brought before a church, it is like when a pastor asks at a wedding if there is any reason why the couple shouldn’t be married. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Therefore if any man can shew any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter for ever hold his peace.” In the case of church membership, perhaps someone in the congregation knows why a person shouldn’t join the church.
There are also other things that churches may vote on, at least according to Scripture. In the book of Acts, we see the church active in determining who served the church and who were sent as missionaries. Now, we have to be careful, because what is descriptive in the Bible isn’t always prescriptive. To put it another way, what is narrated isn’t always normative. There were some unique things that happened in the early church. But in Acts, we see that the apostles asked the church to find seven men who could serve widows in the church (Acts 6:1–7). We looked at this passage two weeks ago when talking about deacons. So, it might be that the congregation has a role to play in deciding who serves in the church. Elders in churches were appointed, but perhaps that was something that apostles had authority to do. Now that we don’t have apostles, perhaps the church should determine who leads. Or, perhaps at the least, the church should affirm the decisions of those who are serving as elders. If a team of elders, or pastors, or overseers, recommend that another person join their ranks, they should ask the church to affirm their decision. That way, the church is making a statement: “We will submit to this man’s leadership.”
In the book of Acts, the church in Antioch laid their hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off as missionaries (Acts 13:1–3; 15:3). The whole church in Jerusalem, with the apostles and the elders of the church, chose a couple of men (Judas and Silas) to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to deliver a letter (Acts 15:22). So, it would seem that the church has the authority to send people for certain purposes, and the church should vote on that, too.
The Bible does not speak of the congregation voting on all manner of other things, like a church budget or special purchases. But there is wisdom in having a church vote on such things. God uses the congregation to affirm the decisions of leaders. And the congregation, by voting, says, “We will financially support the church’s budget.”
The Bible does not teach anything about committees that consist of lay people. I suppose the leaders of the church can delegate authority and ask committees to serve for certain purposes. But it’s worth considering what Mark Dever, a pastor and author, says: “The congregation’s authority is more like an emergency brake than a steering wheel. The congregation more normally recognizes than creates, responds rather than initiates, confirms rather than proposes.” The elders of the church should be the ones that have their hands on the steering wheel, directing the church as God has directed in the Bible and as the Holy Spirit leads. The congregation can act as an emergency brake if they see that something wrong is clearly happening. The congregation can also recognize what God is doing through its leaders and the congregation can affirm what the leaders have decided.
So, what does this mean for us? I think the main thing we should consider today is that all Christians should care about the health of a local church. And that requires commitment. It requires knowing the people of the church, knowing them well enough to know if there is some egregious sin in their lives. Also, when we read the pages of the New Testament, we get the sense that all Christians should take ownership of the local church. They should care about the welfare of the church. They should serve in the church, which is something I’ll talk about next week.
If you’re here today and have not yet officially committed to this church, I would urge you to make that commitment. We will be inviting some of you personally to do that, and we will announce when a membership class is meeting. If you aren’t a member of this church, I invite you to be more than a consumer. A consumer comes and takes. And, yes, a consumer gives money. But a member of a church is more than that. A member cares about the whole body. A member cares about the health of the whole body. Do you care about this church enough to want to make it better?
If everyone who comes to this church joined the church and was truly committed to the church, we would be much better off. More people serving would mean we could accomplish more things. When few people serve, a great burden is put on a relatively small number of people. The 80/20 rule says that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. That’s probably true of this church. That means those 20 percent are taxed and burdened. It also means that we struggle to keep up with the basics. Instead of working on new things, like doing more outreach, we struggle to keep up with the basics of meeting together in worship and taking care of the building. We need more help. We need commitment. And beyond serving, the health of the church requires commitment. We should be committed not only to our own spiritual health, but the spiritual health of other people in the church.
I also need to say this: If you’re here today and you’re not yet a Christian, I would urge you to make a commitment to Christ now. There is no other Savior, no other one who can make you right with God and grant you eternal life. To reject Jesus is to reject God. And to reject God is to reject your Maker and the very purpose of your life.
Right now, I’m asking that all of us—even myself!—become more committed. Let us love one another. Let us care about each other’s souls. Let us care about the purity of the church, the reputation of the church, and the direction of the church. The church is where Jesus dwells on earth. Let us make sure his house is in good order.
- It’s interesting that Paul’s life sometimes echoes the life of Jesus. In verses 3 and 4, when Paul says that he is absent in the flesh but present in the spirit (because he had spent time in Corinth and was now writing from elsewhere), he is likening himself to Jesus, who is in heaven but is present with his people through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Of course, the Spirit of God is greater than the spirit of Paul, and perhaps this was Paul’s way of making the church realize that. In other words, if Paul is absent and his spirit compels the church to act in a certain way, how much more should they act in accordance with the Holy Spirit, who is with them though Jesus is in heaven. ↑
- Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012), 143. ↑
What role does the congregation play in the church? What kind of decisions can the membership of the church make? The Bible indicates that the church as a whole has the authority and responsibility to determine who is in and who is out. Find out more by listening to this sermon preached by Brian Watson on July 1, 2018.
When you watch something, whether it’s a movie, a game of football, or an orchestra play, do you ever think about how many people it takes to put on a large production? When we’re watching a movie, we tend to focus on the actors. We may think about the director, particularly if it’s a famous director. But we probably don’t think about those who are operating the cameras, those who design the lighting, those who are in charge of costumes, the makeup artists, or the editors. We probably don’t think about the key grip, because we’re not quite sure what that person does. We might not even think about the screenwriter. But it takes all those people and many more to make a movie. Each role is important, even if all the roles aren’t visible to the audience.
The same is true of a football game. We tend to focus on the star players, like the quarterback, the running back, and the wide receivers. But a football team needs all kinds of players, like offensive lineman, and the guy who holds the ball for the kicker. And beyond the players, you need coaches and trainers. And you need groundskeepers, ticket sellers, and people who maintain stadiums. Tom Brady may be the star of the Patriots, but he wouldn’t do well without offensive linemen blocking for him, and he couldn’t play if nobody built stadiums, or scheduled games.
The same thing is true of a symphony orchestra. If you go to Symphony Hall to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform, you may focus on the conductor or the soloists. But all the players are important. They all play different parts, different roles. And then there is the stage manager and the stage hands, who arrange the chairs on the stage. There are people who sell tickets and take tickets and clean up the building. All are important.
That’s the way it is in the church. For a church to be a healthy, faithful church, there need to be many people involved, all of whom are important. And these people will play different roles. Some will lead and teach. But most will serve in different ways. These roles aren’t less important, they’re just different.
Today, we’re going to talk about the role of the deacon in the church. We’ll do this by looking at 1 Timothy 3:8–13. But before we do that, I want to say this: We are looking at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the Bible written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, a man named Timothy. We’ve been looking at some other passages in the Bible that deal with how the church should run. We’re doing this because we want to make sure that we are a healthy, faithful church.
There are many churches that are more or less faithful in their message. Thye teach people about Jesus. They tell people who God is, how to have a relationship with God, and how to live a life that is pleasing to God. But many churches ignore what the Bible says about how a church should be organized or how a church should do things. But we can’t do this. We can’t just take the message of Jesus and separate it from Jesus’ commands regarding his church. He has designed his church to function in a certain way, the best way. And we would be wise to pay attention to what Jesus has revealed to us through his prophets and apostles. That’s why we’re spending so much time on this issue.
So, with that being said, we’re going to look at what Paul says about deacons. Let’s read 1 Timothy 3:8–13:
8 Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. 9 They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. 10 And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. 11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. 12 Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. 13 For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
Today, I want to ask and answer three questions about deacons. The first question is: What are deacons? Before I even begin to answer that question, I want to make a quick statement. I want you to forget everything you think you may know about deacons. This morning, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches about deacons. Ideally, what the Bible says about deacons would match up with our understanding of what a deacon is. But that’s not the case. So, I’m going to teach what the Bible teaches. My hope is that this church can line up more fully with what the Bible says.
This passage really doesn’t tell us much about what deacons are. Here, Paul lists the qualities of the deacons. He doesn’t define “deacon” for us. But if we pay close attention, there are some clues as to what a deacon is. In the previous passage in 1 Timothy, Paul talks about overseers, or pastors. He says that they must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Paul doesn’t say that about deacons, so deacons don’t need to be teachers. But a lot of the other things that Paul says here apply to pastors as well, so that doesn’t tell us a lot.
But one of the main things that tells us about what a deacon is, is the very word for this office. The New Testament was written in Greek, and most of the time translations into English are very accurate and easy enough to understand. But there are times when some Greek words are transliterated, probably because of traditions. The word “deacon” in Greek is διάκονος. You can hear how that sounds a lot like our English word. The word actually means “servant.” It can be used to refer to people who wait on tables. So, deacons are servants. It would probably be better for this word to be translated that way in our Bibles. But I suppose it’s not because the translators want us to know that these aren’t just any servants, but the church’s officially recognized servants.
Just as the words “overseer” and “shepherd” tell us a lot about that office, the word “servant” tells us a lot about what a deacon is. But if we’re going to understand more about what kind of a servant a deacon is, we have to look at other passages in the New Testament.
The problem is that the word “deacon,” when used of an official office, doesn’t appear much at all in the New Testament. At the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” (Phil. 1:1). Notice how he addresses the whole congregation and then specifies the two offices of the church: overseers and deacons. But that doesn’t tell us a lot. And, really, that’s the only other time that the word “deacon” appears in our Bibles. The Greek word διάκονος does appear some other times, but it often refers to a servant of some kind or other, not an official servant of the church.
To understand what a deacon is, we have to look at another passage, Acts 6. This passage discusses what is probably the origin of the diaconate. If you’re not familiar with the book of Acts, it tells the story of the early church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension to heaven after he died and rose from the grave. The early chapters tell about the Holy Spirit, the third Person of God, being poured out on the church and the disciples preaching a message about Jesus in Jerusalem. But Christianity is more than just preaching. Let’s read Acts 6:1–7:
1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
We’re told that the disciples—another name for Christians, which means “students” or “followers”—were growing in number. But there was a problem. The church was taking care of widows, but only some widows, the ones who were regarded as Hebrews, who spoke Aramaic. The Hellenists were the Jews who spoke Greek, who grew up in places outside of Palestine, and who had moved to Jerusalem later in life. Their widows weren’t being taken care of. They weren’t receiving food. So, “the twelve,” the apostles, the leaders of the church, come up with a solution. First, they say, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” The verb that is translated “to serve” is διακονεῖν, which is related to the Greek word for “deacon.” The job of the apostles was to preach the word of God, not to take care of these physical problems. They needed someone else to take care of the widows. So, they told the people to pick seven men who had a good reputation, who were full of the Holy Spirit, and who were wise. The people picked seven men, and the apostles approved of their choices and laid hands on them, which means they set them apart for this service.
This division of labor allowed the apostles to focus on “prayer and . . . the ministry of the word.” Since these seven men made sure the Greek widows were fed, the apostles didn’t have to worry about that, and they could focus on the task that Jesus gave them, which was to tell people about Jesus. And this division of labor is very similar to what we find with overseers/pastors and deacons. Pastors preach and teach the Bible, they help people grow in faith, and the lead. But overseeing and leading doesn’t mean they can and should do all the work. Deacons are servants who take care of physical needs.
I don’t think it’s an accident that when men are chosen to take care of the widows, freeing the apostles up to do the work of praying and preaching, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly.” A healthy church that follows God’s design will see to the spiritual and physical needs of the congregation. Deacons are not pastors/shepherds/elders/overseers. They aren’t board members who make decisions. They’re not leaders. They are servants.
That is what the Bible teaches. And it’s a practical teaching. But right now, we don’t have this teaching reflected in our church. We do have two deacons, two godly men who have been a great help to me. But they’re really functioning more like elders. They both do some “deacon-type things.” Jim spends hours mowing the lawn. Dean serves as an usher and opens and later locks the doors. But I suspect that if we reform the church according to the Bible, they will serve as elders, not deacons. Yet we do need deacons to do physical things. That would free me up to do what I need to do as a pastor. If there are physical things that need taking care of in the building or on the grounds, I should be able to contact a deacon to do those things. If we have people who need rides to church, who need help paying bills, or who need physical tasks done because they can’t do them, there should be deacons to meet those needs.
So, deacons are servants, not assistant pastors or even assistants to the pastor. They are not junior overseers or shepherds. But that doesn’t make them less valuable. The church needs servants. And I hope that our by-laws will change to reflect what the Bible teaches. Right now, our by-laws say that deacons should “watch over and pray for the spiritual life of the church.” Anyone can pray for the spiritual life of the church, but the language of “watch over” should be reserved only for pastors. The by-laws also state that deacons should serve as “overseeing . . . members of all committees and boards.” The language of “overseeing” should be reserved for overseers. This needs to be changed. We need a plurality of overseers/elders/pastors and a plurality of deacons. Having a deacon serve as a pastor or a pastor serve as a deacon is like having Tom Brady serve as a receiver. And if you watched the last Super Bowl, you know that didn’t work out so well.
The second question I want to ask and answer is: Who can be deacons? That’s what Paul addresses in 1 Timothy. Let’s look again at today’s passage. He says that deacons should be “dignified,” or honorable. They shouldn’t be “double-tongued.” In other words, they shouldn’t say one thing to one group of people, and another thing to another group of people. They shouldn’t say one thing when they really mean another. They should be consistent in their speech. They shouldn’t be greedy, using their position “for dishonest gain.”
Deacons should also hold fast to the faith. Paul calls it “the mystery of the faith.” When Paul uses “mystery,” he means something specific. He means something that we couldn’t discover by ourselves, but something that God has now revealed. We couldn’t discover on our own what God is like, or how we can have a right relationship with him. God needed to reveal that to us. I’ll come back to that idea in a little while.
Paul also says that deacons should be tested. We shouldn’t throw something into the role of deacon if we don’t know them. Really, we shouldn’t throw someone into the role of deacon if they haven’t already demonstrated that they are truly Christians, that they are trustworthy, and that they have a heart to serve other people.
Then, in verse 11, Paul writes, “Their wives.” Literally, he writes “women.” Here, there is some debate. Is Paul saying that women can be deacons, or is he saying that deacons are men, and that their wives must be a certain way? Or, is Paul saying that deacons are normally men, but their wives can serve alongside them in their service?
Now, before I go any further, I want to say that there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have only male deacons, and there are some faithful, Bible-believing churches that have male and female deacons. But, again, I have to say this: deacons are not pastors. Deacons aren’t leaders. They are servants who take care of physical needs of the church.
Now, there are some strong arguments for having female deacons, and there are some strong arguments for understanding that Paul is referring to wives who have some role to play in service in the church. In favor of female deacons, Paul does not write “their wives.” It just says “women” in the original Greek language. He could have added “their,” but he didn’t. Also, when Paul writes about overseers, he doesn’t refer to their wives. Why do deacons need to have anything written about their wives? Third, in the book of Romans, Paul writes about a woman who is a servant of a church. Literally, she is a διάκονος. This is what Romans 16:1 says: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1). The footnote in the English Standard Version says that “servant” could be translated as “deaconess.” But it’s not the female form of the word that is used here. It’s the male form, deacon. Does Paul mean that Phoebe is an official deacon or is she just “a servant”? It’s not clear. But it seems that she could very well be a deacon.
That being said, there are some good arguments for Paul referring to deacons’ wives. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul has already used the word “woman” to refer to a wife. We see that in verse 2. If in verse 11 he’s referring to women in general, it’s a bit odd, because in verse 12, he goes back to referring to deacons who are male. If he’s referring to female deacons in verse 11, why doesn’t he talk about their marital status? These are some of the arguments against having female deacons.
So, what are we to make of this? Well, if we understand that deacons are not leaders and teachers, then there is no violation of what Paul writes about women in the church (1 Tim. 2:11–15). What is said about deacons could apply to men and women—except for verse 12, where Paul says that deacons should literally be “one-women men.” Perhaps the best way to understand Paul is to see that men should be deacons and should serve along with their wives.
There are situations where a female servant would be helpful. For example, imagine there is a woman in the church who needs help with something in her house. Maybe she’s a widow who can’t do all the housework. Maybe she’s a single mom who doesn’t have the time and energy to do everything in the house, like cleaning or fixing something. It would be unwise for a man to go into that situation, at least alone. It would be better for a woman to serve in that situation, or perhaps a husband-wife team.
This is something that we will have to decide on as a church. But I will say that my last church had some female deacons, almost always serving along with their husbands. One of the most biblical churches I know, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has deacons and deaconesses. Again, these people are not board members, decision-makers, leaders, or shepherds. They are servants. It’s something to consider.
The third question I want to ask and answer is: Why do we need deacons? Hopefully this should be clear by now. A pastor, or even a group of pastors, can’t do all the ministry of the church. We’re not called to do all the ministry of the church. We need members of the church who take care of physical things, whether it’s the building and grounds or going to people’s homes to serve them in different ways, or being in charge of a deacon’s fund, which is used to help people in times of need. At this point, some may wonder why we need people who are called deacons. After all, shouldn’t all Christians be serving in the local church?
Yes, all Christians should serve. But the church needs some officially recognized servants, people who are trustworthy, who have demonstrated that they aren’t greedy, but who can manage their own lives well. That’s because deacons have some important responsibilities. One is that they have access to money and other resources. Even the seven men of Acts 6 were in charge of distributing food. Deacons today often have access to money to use to help the needy. They may also have to serve in sensitive situations, like going into people’s homes. You need someone who is trustworthy in that case. And deacons end up representing the church. If the church is known for having servants that don’t hold to the faith, who are greedy, who misuse their positions, then the church looks bad. Even more important, Jesus looks bad.
So, it makes sense to have officially recognized servants, people who can respond to needs in the church. And it’s practical to have people who fit this role. The church should know who to call upon when there are needs. I should know whom I can call when I discover there’s a need.
The fact that the church needs official officers dedicated to service shows how important physical service is. Christianity is more than just caring about where someone’s spirit goes when he or she dies. It’s about more than just “going to heaven.” Christianity cares about the whole person. Christianity recognizes that God didn’t just create spirits; God created a person who is both body and soul. Christians should care about where someone stands with God, what kind of relationship to Jesus a person has. But they should also care about the physical wellbeing of a person.
Taking care of physical needs is not an unworthy task. That’s something that Christianity demonstrated to a world that thought less of servants. In the ancient world, in both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures, physical service was regarded as less important, far below that of rulers. But Jesus shows that serving is something great. We might say that Jesus is the ultimate deacon.
History is full of examples of people who try to make themselves look great. We want power and a high status. We want people to look at us and think we’re great. This is fallen human nature. But Jesus taught something different. He said, the last would be first, and the first would be last (Matt. 19:30; 20:16). Two of Jesus’ followers, James and John, seemed to want positions of power and status. They had their mother ask Jesus to put them at prominent positions in the kingdom of God. Jesus said that those who follow him will suffer. And then Jesus said,
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25–28).
Jesus said that Gentiles—Romans in his day—lord their power and status over others. They were domineering. They wouldn’t dare stoop down to the level of people below them. But those who follow Jesus should be different. If you want to be great, be a servant. If you want to be first in the kingdom of God, you must first be a slave.
That is completely contrary to the way of the world. Earlier, I talked about “mystery,” that it’s something God must reveal. This is something that God must tell us, because it’s not natural for us. And Jesus reveals to us that it is the right way. Why can Jesus say that the servant and the slave are great in the kingdom of God? Because Jesus himself came to serve. He said, “the Son of Man”—that’s a reference to himself—“came not to be served but to serve.” How did Jesus serve? He gave “his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He has always been God. God the Father created the universe through the Son, by the power of the Spirit. He existed eternally in glory with the Father. But Jesus also became a human being over two thousand years ago. When he did that, he set aside his divine prerogatives. He left the realm of glory, heaven, to come to earth, where he would experience life as we do. He would experience hunger and thirst and fatigue and pain. He would be laughed at, mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He did all this so that he could save his people from judgment, from condemnation. His death on the cross was the redemption price, the only thing that could free us from sin, from eternal death, from hell.
Why do we face condemnation? Because we have rejected God. God made us to reflect his glory, to represent him on earth, to love and obey him, to worship him, and, yes, to serve him. But we don’t want to live under God’s authority. We want to live life on our terms. We turn our backs on God, ignoring him, disobeying his commands. And this is a great evil. In fact, all the evil in the world can be traced back to rebellion against God. Since God wants a good creation, one that isn’t tainted with evil, he has plans to judge the world, to punish sinners and remove sin from his creation. God is a righteous judge who will make sure that all rebellion is punished, because that rebellion ruins his good creation. If you had someone come into your house and destroy everything and harm your family, you would make sure that person was driven out of your house and punished, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s what God will do on judgment day.
But if God did that, every human being would be driven out of his house and punished. Yet God is merciful and gracious. He provided a way for our sins to be punished but for us not to be driven out. Jesus is that way. He was punished for our sins. He was driven out, cut off from the land of the living, so that we could live eternally.
In another letter, Paul writes about this. In Philippians 2, Paul writes,
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5–8).
Jesus, though he was and is divine, didn’t try to cling to his status in heaven. I like what a recent translation, the Christian Standard Bible says. It says Jesus, “existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God, as something to be exploited.” Instead, he made himself a servant by becoming a human being. And he humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross, which was an instrument of torture. Only Jesus lived the perfect life. He never sinned. He didn’t deserve to die, particularly in that manner. And when he died on the cross, he endured more than a physical death. He endured hell on earth, a spiritual pain that goes beyond what we could imagine.
Yet Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Paul continues:
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9–11).
Jesus rose from the grave. He ascended to heaven. He has been exalted by God the Father to glory. And when he comes again to earth, every knee will bow. Some will bow in terror. Others will bow in worship. But every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, that he is the King, that he is God. And those who serve will be exalted, too. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus shows that service, even the most menial service, isn’t something “below us.” It is something that is great. Jesus even washed his disciples’ feet, which would have been covered in dirt, since they wore sandals and walked on dirty, dusty roads. (You can read about this in John 13.) He did this to foreshadow his cleansing them from their sin. But he also did this as an example. He said,
13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Jesus is far more than just an example. He did what we cannot do. He has the power to make us right with God, to take care of our sin problem, which is what separates us from God. We can’t do that. And we can’t die for another person’s sin. So, we need to be served by Jesus. But we also need to serve like Jesus, stooping down to meet the needs of others. And this is something that is great.
If you do not know Jesus, if you don’t know much about him or how to live for him, I would love to talk to you more. He is the only one who can give us eternal life.
If you do know Jesus, I hope that you are serving him by serving others. If you’re not a member of this church, I would like to talk to you about joining the church. We may not all be deacons, but we should all serve in the local church.
If you’re a member of the church, if you have a heart for service, and if you meet the qualifications for a deacon, perhaps consider serving in that role. If you do, keep in mind that “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”
- Arguments for and against female deacons are found in Benjamin L. Merkle, 40 Questions about Elders and Deacons (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), 249–258. ↑
Serving others is just as important as leading. Service is so important to Christianity that the church has officially recognized servants called deacons. What is a deacon? Who can be a deacon? Why do we need deacons? Find out in this sermon by Brian Watson, based on 1 Timothy 3:8–13.
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.
- 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. ↑
What obligation does a church have to its leaders? The church should respect, esteem, obey, and submit to their leaders, namely the pastors (or elders/overseers). If we recognize Jesus as our ultimate authority, we’ll obey church authorities (as long as they’re following Jesus). Pastor Brian Watson preaches about leaders and followers in the Bible.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the role of the pastor. A pastor shepherds the people of the church and equips them for ministry. The following texts are used: Psalm 23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; John 21:15-17; Ephesians 4:1-16.
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.
- Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (Kingsford, NSW, Australia: Matthias Media, 2009), 94ff. ↑
- Ibid., 99. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
As a leader goes, so goes a country, a company, a sports team, or any institution or organization. We realize that with our country, which is why we put so much emphasis on who is the president. The last election was only a year and a half ago, and people are still talking about it, but in a year or less, people will start campaigning for the next election in an effort to be the next president. We probably give too much weight to the presidency, blaming or praising him for almost everything that happens in this country. But we realize that if the president is a bad one, the country is in trouble.
The same is true of corporations. A company needs to have a good CEO to thrive. We don’t own a house right now, so we have some money invested in stocks. I’ve used one stock recommendation service to get some tips on how to invest, and one of the ways they evaluate companies is by evaluating their CEOs. A company with a wise and innovative CEO is more promising than one that has an incompetent leader.
The same is true in sports. Today, the Celtics play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavaliers. Despite whatever happens today, the Celtics have done better than most people would have imagined, since their star player, Kyrie Irving, has been injured for the last two months and won’t play again until next season. The Celtics also acquired another star, Gordon Hayward, last year, but he only played five minutes and scored two points before breaking his ankle. Since he’s getting about $30 million this year, that’s a bad investment. Most people credit the Celtics’ success to their coach, Brad Stevens. The Patriots have had some great players over the last seventeen years, but if you took away Bill Belichick, I don’t how many Super Bowls they would have won.
Leaders are important. And they’re important in churches, too. And that’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the leaders of churches.
Today, we’re continuing our study of 1 Timothy, a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. This book of the Bible teaches us “how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim. 3:15). Paul had left Timothy in the city of Ephesus, an important city within the Roman Empire. The church there was threatened by the presence of false teachers. So, Paul wrote to Timothy to make sure that Timothy did his best to protect the health of the church. One way to protect the health of the church is to make sure its leaders are healthy.
And that brings us to today’s passage, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, which discusses the “office of the overseer.” First, we’ll read the passage, and then we’ll explore what it and another passage in the Bible say about leaders of the church.
But before we read this, I want to say to those who are visiting, or perhaps those who are not yet Christians: This text of the Bible may not seem like it pertains to your life at all. It is about the nuts and bolts of church life, after all. But what I’ll talk about today will give you a sense of what Christianity is all about, why the church is important, and why leaders of a church are important. And perhaps all of that will teach you more about the values of Christianity, the failings of Christians, and why those failings don’t mean that Christianity itself has failed.
Without further ado, let’s read today’s text. Here is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:
1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
I want to ask a few basic questions of this passage. The first one is, what is an overseer? That’s not a term used in churches, though it does appear a few times in the Bible. The King James Version translates the Greek word as “bishop.” But when we Protestants think of “bishop,” we think of the Roman Catholic Church, or perhaps the Anglican or Episcopal Church. (The Episcopal Church is named after this Greek word, episkopos.) In those churches, a bishop is an authority over several churches in an area. Is that what Paul is talking about?
No. We can see that by comparing a few different passages. Let’s look at a very similar passage in another one of Paul’s letters, his letter to Titus. In Titus 1:5–9, Paul writes,
5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
Here Paul tells Titus that he had left him on the island of Crete so that he could appoint elders in every town. Then, after giving a few qualifications of an elder, Paul write, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” That’s what Paul writes in 1 Timothy, too. But Paul had first started by talking of elders, so it seems that overseers are elders. The two words refer to the same office.
Some churches use the word “elder,” but some do not. So, we might not be very familiar with this term. It calls to mind older people, though in the Bible an elder was generally the head of a family, not someone who is a senior citizen. And the leaders of churches are not necessarily very old. But the point is that elders are overseers, and overseers are elders. And, before we look at other passages, it’s important to see this: Paul told Titus to appoint elders—note, this is plural—in every town—this is singular. That suggests that in every place, perhaps every individual church, there should be multiple elders, or overseers.
Let’s continue to look at other passages to figure out what “elder” and “overseer” mean. We’ll look more at this passage next week, but in 1 Peter 5, another apostle, Peter, writes,
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 (1 Pet. 5:1–4).
Peter begins with that same term, “elders.” He calls himself “a fellow elder.” And then he says, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” “Oversight” reminds us of the term “overseer.” It’s the verb form of the Greek word translated as “overseer.” But notice that other verb: shepherd. Now we’re getting on familiar ground. The verb could be translated “pastor the flock of God.” The word “pastor” comes from a Latin word that means “shepherd.”
So, now we’re getting somewhere. An overseer is an elder is a pastor. These three terms refer to the same office. That might be confusing, but it’s not different than referring to the President as Commander in Chief. Those two terms can be used of the same office. The President is not someone different than the Commander in Chief. Those titles refer to the same person, or the same office. In a similar way, overseer, elder, and shepherd (or pastor) refer to the same office.
We’ll also see this in a moment when we look at some of Acts 20. When Paul was traveling back toward Jerusalem, he made a stop in Miletus, on the western coast of the province of Asia Minor, and he called the “elders of the church” of Ephesus to come to him. In part of his speech, Paul says, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Again, Paul is addressing the elders, and now he says that they are to care, “or shepherd,” the flock, because the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. The ESV says “to care for the church,” but it really should be “to shepherd the church” (as in the CSB and the NASB; the NIV has something similar). So, the elders are overseers, and they are to shepherd the church.
So, that answers our question. Overseers are elders or, more familiarly, pastors. That is one of two ongoing offices in the church. The other is deacon. That’s why Paul mentions both the “overseers” and the “deacons” at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 1:1). It doesn’t appear that there are any other ongoing offices in the church. There is no indication that there should be a pope, a head over the whole universal church. There is no mention of ongoing “bishops,” who govern all the churches in one city or province. The only priests in the new covenant, the church, are all Christians (1 Pet. 2:9, for example). The multiple levels of hierarchy that one sees in the Catholic Church developed in the centuries after the Bible was written, but they are not themselves part of God’s Word to his church.
Now, let’s answer a second question: what are the qualifications for an overseer, an elder, or a pastor? Let’s go back to 1 Timothy 3. Paul says that “an overseer must be above reproach” (v. 2). This does not mean that a pastor must be sinless or perfect. If that were the case, there would be no pastors! But it means there must be no major moral defects in a pastor. Many commentators believe that what follows in Paul’s list provides the definition of what it means to be “above reproach.”
Paul says he must be “the husband of one wife,” or, more literally, a “one-woman man.” Some people think this means a pastor must never have been divorced, or that pastor couldn’t remarry if his first wife died. Paul could have used words like “divorce” to describe a pastor’s qualities. But he didn’t. It’s more likely that Paul means a pastor should be faithful to his wife. Divorce in many cases is a sin, but it’s not an unforgivable sin. Yet the pastor must have a track record of being faithful to his wife.
He should also be “sober-minded” and “self-controlled.” That seems self-explanatory. A pastor should be level-headed, with the ability to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
He must be “respectable,” worthy of respecting, as well as “hospitable.” Literally, this means a “lover of strangers.” He must be willing to open his life and his home to new people, which is true of all Christians (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).
He also must be “able to teach.” Besides the fact that Paul calls these leaders “overseers,” which suggests what the job is about, this is the qualification in the list that suggests what overseers do. They must be able to teach. Specifically, they must be able to teach God’s Word. As we study other passages related to overseers/elders/pastors, we’ll see that not every one of these is a regular teacher. But every overseer must be able to teach. Why is that necessary?
Often, we think of leaders as different from teachers. Think of the Patriots. I don’t know how much Bob Kraft knows about football. I’m sure I wouldn’t want him coaching the Patriots. But he’s the owner and if he wanted, he could fire Bill Belichick. Belichick is more of the teacher. We tend to separate these functions when we think of leadership. But the Bible doesn’t. According to the Bible, the church’s leaders are teachers, even if they aren’t always engaged in teaching. Why is that necessary? Because leaders of a church must lead biblically. They must lead according to what the Bible says. And I have seen that many people don’t know how to interpret the Bible well. That’s why God has given the church some people who can. But it’s often the case that some leaders in a church are not teachers, and that’s probably why many churches are not healthy.
In verse 3, Paul says that an overseer is “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.” Much of that is self-explanatory. A pastor can’t be sober-minded if he is drunk. Violence, or being a very argumentative person, is not what Christianity is about. Gentle does not mean never disagreeing, or never saying a strong word. We can say that Jesus was gentle, but he was not afraid to rebuke, to cry out in a loud voice, or to overturn some tables and crack a whip to drive sinful practices out of the temple. But being gentle must be the opposite of being violent and quarrelsome. He must be careful how he treats people. He must be patient and gracious. Again, this doesn’t mean he puts up with just anything, or puts up with problematic people forever. See all of Paul’s letters. He was not afraid to remove people from churches and speak strong words.
A pastor or overseer must not be a “lover of money.” I’ll speak a bit about this next week, too, but it doesn’t hurt to be a bit repetitive. Pastors who are “in it for the money” will be far more likely to do anything to get people into the church, so that the church can grow and more money will come in. Those pastors won’t preach unpopular passages. They may not contradict what the Bible says, but they won’t preach the fullness of what the Bible says. Though, of course, it may be the case that pastors who are in it for the money change their doctrine so that it matches with what the people want to hear. They may refuse to correct or confront people who are wealthy, because the church might lose a significant donor.
This is true of not just pastors, but all of us. Whatever we love the most will dictate the course of our lives. If we love Jesus most, we’ll love truth. We’ll obey Jesus’ commandments. We’ll love God with all our being and we’ll love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But if we love money or power more than we love God, we’ll be willing to make all kinds of compromises. The same is true if our treasure is comfort or entertainment or a relationship. What we love the most is our object of worship, our functional god. And if we worship anything other than the true God, we’ll bend moral rules to keep our god.
The world has many pastors and priests who have compromised in order to please people or to earn money. The world has many priests and pastors who have made sex their god, and have cheated on wives or who have sexually abused children. None of this means Christianity is false. It means that people are sinners, even within the church, and that at any given moment any of us can do what is wrong. That is why we must all be careful to watch what we love the most, what we believe to be true, just as much as we must watch our behaviors. Our desires will dictate our lives. Pastors must love God, and the truth of God, found in God’s Word, more than they love pleasing people, earning accolades, or making money.
There are three more things that Paul says about overseers, or elders or pastors. First, a pastor “must manage his own household well.” The reason is simple: “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” This shows that an overseer is a leader, one who manages the church. If he can’t first manage his own home, including his children, why should we expect him to do better with the church? If his children are unruly, if his home is a mess, if his finances are out of order—well, who would want that for the church?
This does not mean that every pastor must have a wife and children. If that were so, Jesus couldn’t be a pastor, and neither could Paul! But it’s generally expected that pastors will be married and have children. This, too, shows that the Catholic Church is wrong to forbid its leaders to marry. Marriage is a good thing, something that teaches us many lessons about faithfulness and forgiveness and loving someone else when we don’t feel like it, or when that person doesn’t seem particularly lovable. Having children teaches many lessons, too, and both are gifts from God. A pastor must handle these gifts well if he wants to handle the gift of leading a church well.
In verse 6, Paul says, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” I suppose “recent” might be a bit relative. When the church was young, elders must have been appointed to churches not long after becoming Christians. But the point is that the new converts can be proud of their spirituality, or proud of their doctrine. Life has a way of humbling people and tempering their pride over time, and this is true of pastors, too. It’s best for them to have time being led after becoming a Christian instead of jumping into a position of leadership. If not, pastors may become like Satan, whose pride led him to rebel against God and therefore fall into condemnation.
Finally, Paul says that an overseer “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” Paul is concerned about the reputation of the church. An overseer who has a bad reputation outside of the church makes the church, and therefore Jesus, look bad. Satan would love nothing more than to destroy the church, to ruin its reputation. So, he has laid many snares, many traps for pastors. Some involve money, some involve marriage and sex, some involve compromising their theology. All lead to a bad reputation for Jesus and his church.
So, those are the basic qualifications for pastors. But, if you think about it, most of these qualities should apply to all Christians. The only one that doesn’t is the ability to teach and, if people are single, the descriptions of marriage and a home life. In other words, pastors should be ideal Christians—not perfect Christians, because there’s no such thing. But they should be model Christians.
These qualities are probably the very opposite of the qualities that the false teachers have. If you read this letter carefully, it’s not hard to see that they were lovers of money (1 Tim. 6:3–10). It’s possible they were sexually promiscuous (2 Tim. 3:6). They were certainly not able to teach, and it seems they were quarreling over foolish things, like myths and genealogies (Tit. 3:9). In order to protect the health of the church, churches first need to have healthy leaders.
Paul knew this well, that’s why he had warned the elders in Ephesus about this several years earlier. We have already asked, “what is an overseer?” and “what are the qualifications of an overseer?” Now we should ask, “what does an overseer do?”
I’ll answer this in more detail next week. But for now, I want us to look at that passage in Acts 20, when Paul addresses the elders of the church in Ephesus. I preached on this a couple of years ago, and you can find the whole series of sermons on Acts online. Therefore, I won’t dig into the details. But I want us to see a few important things in this passage. So, I’ll read Acts 20:17–31:
17 Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him. 18 And when they came to him, he said to them:
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.”
I could go on, but for the sake of time, I’ll stop there.
I want to point out four things. First, Paul emphasizes his teaching. He says declared “what was profitable . . . the whole counsel of God.” He probably doesn’t mean he literally preached the whole Bible. After all, the entire Bible hadn’t been written yet. But he taught the fullness of God’s plan for his creation. He taught about who God is, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the perfect, eternal, holy, righteous, loving, merciful, gracious, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient deity. He taught that God made the universe for his glory and that he made human beings in his image, to reflect his glory, to represent who he is, to worship him, to rule over the world, and to love and obey him. He also taught that from the beginning human beings have rebelled against God. They have failed to love and trust him. They have rejected his word. In short, they have sinned. But he taught that at the right time, God sent his unique Son, Jesus, who lived a perfect human life and died in place of sinful human beings. Anyone who turns from sin to Jesus can receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
That brings us to the second thing Paul mentions: his message. He taught “the gospel of the grace of God.” He taught “of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He taught that “the church of God” was “obtained with his own blood.” That verse, verse 28, shows that Jesus is God. And it shows that he redeemed a people through his sacrifice on the cross. He made them his own. Jesus died to pay the penalty for their sin. As a righteous judge, God cannot let the guilty go free without someone paying the penalty for their crimes. Jesus paid that penalty in full on the cross for anyone who would turn to him in faith, trusting that his life, death, and resurrection is what reconciles us to God.
The third thing that Paul says is also found in verse 28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” He tells the elders to pay attention to themselves. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). He tells them to shepherd the flock, to care for them. He also says that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.
The fourth thing Paul says is “be alert.” He says that “fierce wolves” will attack the flock. These “wolves” will include people within the church, even some elders: “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” False teachers, people who “speak twisted things,” can destroy the church. These people may not look fierce at all. They may be the nicest people you know. But anyone who rejects God’s Word, or leads people away from following it, is a “wolf.” People who attack the sheep or who attack a faithful shepherd are wolves.
From this passage in Acts, we get a good sense of what overseers do. They teach God’s Word—the fullness of it, not just popular passages. They care and protect the flock. And they watch out for false teachers or other enemies. Of course, they exercise oversight, too. They lead, teach, and protect.
The reason I spend so much time reading Scripture in my sermons and showing where I get my ideas from is because I want to teach “the whole counsel of God.” Some churches don’t spend a lot of time with Scripture. Some churches focus only on the more “practical” passages, the ones that seem to apply to everyone, not just pastors or people concerned about church leadership. But I think it’s important to teach all of God’s Word to all of God’s people. I think we should view all of God’s world through the lens of all of God’s Word. And that means focusing on the Bible, not spending a lot of time on my opinions or on cute stories.
So, we’ve looked at a lot of Scripture and thought a bit about overseers/elders/pastors. What should we do with this information?
First, I want to speak to anyone who might not be a Christian. Thanks for being here. Today’s passage may not seem to apply at all to you. But I hope it’s given you some insight into what’s important about Christianity. You’ve heard the central message of Christianity: Jesus came to save sinners, people who have been enemies of God. You may not see yourself as an enemy of God, but if you don’t love God more than anything else, and if that isn’t truly apparent in your life, you’re at odds with God. The fact is that all of us start out as rebels. We don’t love, trust, and obey God the way that we should. We have all sinned. And therefore, we deserve condemnation. But God sent his Son, who came willingly, to die on our place, if we would only trust him. I would love to talk to you more about what it means to follow Jesus. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you first have to be perfect. But when we come to Jesus, we must do life God’s way, and that means living the way a model Christian should live. We will not all be pastors, but many of the qualities of a pastor should be apparent in a Christian’s life.
Second, I want us a church to think about what all these passages say. There are two offices of the church: overseer/elder/shepherd and deacon. The two are not the same. They don’t perform the same roles. Deacons aren’t junior pastors or assistant pastors. Deacons are not shepherds or overseers. We need to have a correct understanding of both offices, and this should be reflected in our by-laws. Right now, they are not. If you look at our by-laws, nowhere in the description of the pastor’s role does it include the language of leading, overseeing, shepherding, or watching over. Yet in the description of the deacons, we’re told they should “watch over” the congregation and serve as “overseeing” members of committees. I’ll have more to say about all of this, but the by-laws of this church are not fully biblical, and therefore, they need to change.
Three, I would like to see this church have multiple overseers/elders/pastors. This does not mean the church has to hire more staff. Many healthy churches that are similar in doctrine have multiple elders, some of whom are paid staff, and others who are lay leaders. They all have the same office, though perhaps they don’t all devote as much time to the job. The paid staff do more of the teaching and do more administrative oversight. But all the elders are responsible for shepherding the flock. The role of the deacons is to serve in practical manners, often through physical acts of service, but also through distributing financial aid to those in need. I’ll say much more about these roles over the coming weeks. For now, I just want to have us think about that model, because it’s biblical.
We should all care about the leadership of the church because the church is “the household of God . . . a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Being part of God’s family means being part of a church. And a healthy church needs faithful leaders. Please pray that I would be a faithful shepherd and that we would all follow the chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
- https://wbcommunity.org/acts. ↑
As a leader goes, so goes any organization. The same is true for the church. That’s why the Bible has some important things to say about the qualifications for church leaders. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 3:1-7, with a quick look at some of Acts 20:17-31. This message takes a look at the office of overseer/elder/pastor and why this matters for the church.
I think most people would agree that there is problem with men and women in our culture. That is particularly true in light of the many different accounts of sexual abuse and harassment that have come to light within recent months and years. How men and women relate to each other in this country is problematic, to say the least.
Though most people would agree with that, we don’t seem to agree on the solution to this problem. Some people think the way forward is to have more female leaders. Many people think every other president should be a woman, that half of Congress should be female, and that there should be more female governors, mayors, and judges. The same people think that there should be far more female CEOs, board members, principals, professors, military officers, and so on. They might think that for every male role in a movie or television show, there should be a female role. I suspect that if the people who hold these opinions thought about religion, they would think there should be a female Pope and priests, too.
In other words, some people think that the way forward is to have equal roles for men and women. Not only are they equal in value, worth, respect, and dignity, but they also should be able to perform all the same jobs. The only difference is biological. And those biological differences are generally only concerned with reproductive organs and size and strength.
But what if this isn’t the way forward? What if the way forward is to go backward? And I don’t mean that we should go back to the nineteenth century, when women couldn’t vote. I don’t mean we should go back to, say, a thousand or two or three thousand years ago, when women were often treated like property. What if the way forward is to look back to a time when the world was uncorrupted by the forces of evil? What if the way forward is to look back to the way God designed the world to function, before sin invaded the creation and distorted everything?
I realize that many people think such an idea would be foolish. Many people would believe such a move to be regress, not progress. I understand that. The reality is that Christianity has always been countercultural. Christianity is more than just a way to be forgiven by God. Christianity is a way of looking at all of reality. It’s a worldview, a story that gives shape to our lives, a map that shows us where to go, a set of lenses that helps us to see the world as it really is. And the Christian worldview will always be at odds with elements of the prevailing culture’s worldview. This is particularly true when it comes to the issue of men and women.
We’ll see that today as we continue to look at a book in the Bible called 1 Timothy. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy, who was in a city in the Roman Empire called Ephesus.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that Paul encouraged Timothy to stop people who taught false doctrine. Now, he tells Timothy that men and women have different roles to play in the church.
What we see in this passage will challenge some of us. At first, some of us might think this couldn’t possibly be right. That will likely be true if you’re not a Christian. But I would ask that you keep an open mind. I also ask you to think about this: There has never been a country that has had as much wealth as America has right now. There has never been a people with as many choices as Americans have now. Despite all of this, we are, on the whole, unhappy. The number of suicides, drug overdose deaths, various addictions, and drug prescriptions for depression and anxiety speak to that fact. Perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re doing things. That’s something to consider as we explore today’s passage.
Without further ado, let’s turn to 1 Timothy 2:8–15:
8 I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9 likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
There are four points to this passage. The first two concern appropriate behavior for men and women, respectively. The third point states what women should not do. And the fourth point provides the reason.
The first thing that Paul says is “I desire.” You might think he is simply expressing his own opinions or wishes, and that these are not necessarily commands from God. But at the very beginning of the letter, Paul describes himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1). Paul was commissioned by God—commanded by God—to be the official messenger of Jesus. God appointed him to this role (1 Tim. 2:7). In 2 Timothy, Paul says that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16)—it’s ultimately written by God through human beings, which is what the apostle Peter says, too (2 Pet. 1:21). Peter also refers to Paul’s letters and then speaks of “other Scriptures,” which means that Paul’s letters are Scripture, too (2 Pet. 3:15–16). So, this isn’t just a letter from Paul. It’s also God’s word. The Holy Spirit wrote these words through Paul. The point is that these aren’t just Paul’s opinions.
Paul says that he desires “that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” It seems the men in the church in Ephesus might have had trouble getting along. Paul says that not only those men, but men in “every place” should pray. This shows that Paul’s words in this letter are not just directed to the church in Ephesus, but to all Christians. And it’s clear that Paul’s instructions here have to do with public worship meetings. Instead of lifting hands to fight among themselves, they should lift “holy hands,” hands that are pure, hands that reach out to God, as it were. Perhaps they should be praying for all people, as Paul says at the beginning of chapter 2.
Then, Paul moves on to discuss what is appropriate for women: “women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” It’s possible that in Ephesus, some women were showing off their wealth by wearing a lot of jewelry and “costly attire.” Paul doesn’t want anyone in the church to draw attention away from God and to themselves. When we gather as a church on the Lord’s Day, it’s not a fashion show. Our attention should be directed toward God. Anything that distracts from that focus is a hindrance. This is not a time to show off expensive clothing or jewelry.
There may be another reason why Paul doesn’t women to dress in a showy way. Women might have dressed that way to get attention from men. Even if they weren’t intending to attract or seduce men, if they dressed in an immodest way, then the men of the church might have been distracted.
As a man, I can say this: I don’t know any man who doesn’t struggle with lust. Perhaps there are some men who don’t have such problems. But every man I know who was talked on the subject has some struggles in this area. If attractive women are wearing revealing clothing, that can not only be a distraction, but it doesn’t help men who struggle with that issue. Now, it’s a man’s fault if he can’t control his thoughts and desires. But a sister in Christ should want to help her brother out, and not be a stumbling block to him. And if a woman is dressing in a showy, revealing way, there has to be some question as to why she is doing that. Is she at a worship service to worship God, or to attract attention to herself?
I don’t see this being a problem at this church, so I won’t linger too long here. The point is that women shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Instead, they should focus on doing good works, the source of real beauty. That doesn’t necessarily mean women can’t wear any jewelry or makeup, or that they can’t wear something fashionable. But the point is that the focus should be on God and on living for him.
Of course, the same could be said of men. I don’t know that men tend to be so distracting in their looks. But I’m a man, not a woman, so I can’t speak for how women might react to a very attractive man wearing something that was form-fitting or revealing. But men don’t tend to do that, and that was probably true in Paul’s day, so it doesn’t seem to be much of a worry.
Let’s move on to verses 11 and 12, for this is where things get quite controversial. Paul says, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” This is where Paul’s words grate against so many today. What does Paul mean? There seem to be two general understandings of what Paul writes here. One is to take Paul’s words at face value. Women shouldn’t teach in a church meeting or exercise authority over men in a church. Instead, they should be submissive and generally quiet. The other is to claim that Paul was addressing a particular cultural issue in his time. The claim is that in Ephesus, all women were uneducated and therefore not fit to teach. Since Paul was concerned about false teaching, and since the women there were uneducated, Paul tells them to learn and not teach or lead. But maybe if the cultural conditions were different, Paul wouldn’t place such restrictions on women.
I don’t have enough time to refute that second position thoroughly. All I can say is that Paul nowhere hints at a claim that all women in Ephesus were uneducated and that’s why they shouldn’t teach or lead men. Paul could have used words to communicate such an idea. He could have framed his argument in that way. But he doesn’t. In fact, since the false teachers were likely male, telling women not to teach wouldn’t stop the false teaching. But it probably was the case that some women decided they, too, could be teachers. Perhaps they thought that since Jesus had come, all gender distinctions were no longer valid.
I do think that Paul means that women should not lead men in a church. In other words, they shouldn’t be pastors, elders, or overseers. The Bible uses three different terms—shepherds (from which we get “pastors”), elders, and overseers—to refer to the leading and teaching office of the church. What Paul says means that women are not qualified for that office. But that doesn’t mean women can’t teach at all. In Titus, Paul says that older women should teach younger women (Tit. 2:3–5). And when Paul says that women should learn quietly, he can’t mean absolute silence, for at least two reasons. First, Paul uses the same word in verse 2 to speak of all Christians leading a quiet life. He hardly means all Christians should be absolutely silent. Second, in another letter, 1 Corinthians, Paul says that women can pray and prophesy in church (11:5). But I do think Paul means women should submit to male leaders and teachers—pastors—and shouldn’t be pastors themselves.
Again, this is where people start to claim that the Bible presents a regressive, backwards “patriarchal” view of men and women. How can we respond to this type of claim?
Well, let me say two things before we continue to look at verses in the Bible. One, I find that labels are often not helpful when dealing with controversial subjects. People who tend to oppose this passage will often bring up the word “patriarchy,” as if that’s some kind of argument in and of itself. Some people now talk about “toxic masculinity,” which is kind of an unclear concept. I’m sure there are false views of masculinity that are toxic. The Bible does not teach that men should be abusive or treat women like slaves or playthings. But I think a lack of biblical manhood is also toxic. When a man refuses to accept the role that God designed for him, that could be just as toxic as the domineering, abusive man. Likewise, I don’t think it’s helpful to rail against “feminist” or “leftists.” Good arguments don’t call names, mock people, or just make quick, baseless assertions. Christians, we need to do better in all of our conversations than resorting to these cheap, easy moves. We need to be more thoughtful and careful.
So, we need to dig deeper and think. That’s one issue.
The second issue is that how we read, interpret, and react to the Bible is going to be shaped by our worldview. No one comes to the Bible objectively. We all have various beliefs, heart inclinations, philosophical commitments, and presuppositions. Sometimes, we’re not even aware of those things. We often assume that we’re in the right, and we look at the Bible to see if it matches what we already assume to be true. Before we assume our generation has things right, we should examine our own beliefs. By what standard have we judged them? Why do we assume that we’re right and others in the past have been wrong?
Some people assume that Paul was culturally conditioned. In other words, he was just a man of his times and his views reflected his own culture. All the while, these same people never assume that they are culturally conditioned, and that they are just men and women of their own times, with views that reflect nothing more than the passing fancies of their own culture.
If the basic story of the Bible is true—that a holy, perfect, good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God created us to function in a certain way, and that we have rebelled against him and his design for our lives—we should assume that there will be times when the Bible rubs us the wrong way. That’s because God will be using his written word to challenge our assumptions and correct our views. That has always happened. The Bible has always been countercultural. The exact ways it challenges various cultures will change throughout time, but there was never a time when everyone in one country said, “Yup, everything in that book is exactly what I’ve always believed.”
Now, back to this passage: to understand what Paul is saying, and why it makes sense, we have to see how he grounds his argument and how that shows us some important points regarding the Christian worldview.
This is the reason why women should not teach and exercise authority over men in church: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” What Paul is doing is reminding us of the beginning of the Bible.
So, let’s think about the beginning of the story of the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The crown of God’s creation was humanity. In Genesis 1:26–28, we read this:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
It’s very important to see that God made both man and woman in his image. That means that both have the same value and worth. They were both tasked with representing who God is, reflecting his glory and attributes. And man and woman were made to rule over the rest of creation by coming under the authority of God and his word.
Genesis 2 gives us a different perspective of how God made human beings. It’s not a contradictory account, it’s just different. The Hebrew way of thinking often examined one truth from different angles. In Genesis 2, we see that God makes the man first. God also gives the man a task, to “work and keep” the garden of Eden, as well as a commandment not to eat one type of fruit. All of this is loaded with meaning that I don’t have time to explain this morning. Suffice it to say, the importance of all of this goes far beyond gardening and eating.
After this, God makes a woman to be with the man. God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). The ESV has a footnote that says, “corresponding to.” The idea is that God wouldn’t make a clone of the man, someone identical to him. No, God would make a woman who would correspond to and complement the man. She would be different in some important ways, but they would both bear God’s image.
It’s true that different faithful, Bible-believing Christians interpret the opening chapters of Genesis differently. There are different views about how old the universe is, or how literal and how figurative various things are in the text. But I think all faithful Christians must believe that God created two human beings, Adam and Eve, intentionally and for a particular purpose. He made them for each other, different from one another yet corresponding to one another and, obviously, both human and both in God’s image. It’s also important to see that the commands were given by God to the man, and that this happened before sin came into the world. This implies that the man was the head, or leader, of the woman even before sin entered into the world.
This picture of peace and harmony between God and humans, and between the first two human beings, is marred in Genesis 3. There, a serpent, an embodiment of Satan, tempts Eve by getting her to question God’s word and his goodness. She disobeys God’s commandment not to eat the forbidden fruit, and Adam goes along with her. As a consequence, all of creation is under a curse, a partial punishment that God imposed against his rebellious creatures.
Though Eve was the first to sin, Adam is the one who is held accountable by God. We’re told that God specifically addressed the man and questioned him about what happened. This is because Adam was the leader, the head. Theologically, we know from the whole of the Bible that Adam was the covenant head. He represented all of humanity. This is a difficult concept for people who aren’t familiar with the Bible to grasp, but the idea is that we are all represented by someone, just as we’re all represented in Congress by politicians, whether we voted for that person or not. Even before the fall, Adam is the leader.
Part of God’s curse is that men and women would struggle against each other. God told Eve,
Your desire shall be contrary toyour husband,
but he shall rule over you (Gen. 3:16).
If we compare that language to what God says to Cain in the next chapter of Genesis (see Gen. 4:7), we see that this means that the woman would want to dominate or master her husband, and that he would respond with a harsh rule, not loving leadership. God was saying that this would happen to all women and men in the future.
Let’s now get back to Paul’s argument. He says that Adam was formed first, then Eve. I believe the implication is that God made Adam first because God intended to have man be the head of the family. This is what Paul says in a letter to Christians in this same city of Ephesus. In Ephesians 5:22–24, Paul writes,
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Paul says clearly that the husband is the head of the wife, and that the wife should submit to the husband.
But let’s not forget what Paul says next. In verse 25, he says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That’s a high calling. Men are supposed to love their wives in a leading but sacrificial way. You can see how there is no hint of abuse or domineering here.
Paul also says that Eve was deceived first and sinned. Does Paul mean that women are more easily deceived or more easily given to sinning? Does Paul mean that if the serpent talked to Adam instead of Eve, sin wouldn’t have entered into the world?
I don’t think Paul means those things. But the fact is that the serpent did talk to Eve, not Adam. Why would that happen? Why would Satan work through a serpent, anyway? There’s some mystery here, but it seems that Satan quite intentionally worked against God’s created order. Genesis 1 says that human beings were to have dominion over all animals, including things that creep on the earth. Satan spoke through a creepy-crawly animal, getting a human being to trust him instead of God. Already, he was subverting the created order. And since God made the man first and gave him the commandments and held him accountable for the rebellion, it’s clear that God made the man to be a leader over the woman. Satan must have known that, but he continued to subvert the created order by tempting the woman. And the woman then tempted the man. We should also see that in Genesis 3, Adam was “with her” (v. 6). He clearly didn’t do a good job of leading or protecting his wife, so he is just as much to blame.
Now, that all seems to be clear. But perhaps that doesn’t answer why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors. Why shouldn’t they be?
It’s hard to answer that question in a way that will satisfy critics. We must say, though, that God made men to be leaders and women to serve alongside, but not over, men. And I think we can make some generalizations about men and women. There will likely be exceptions to these generalizations, but I think they are for the most part true. Women tend to be more nurturing. It’s no surprise that most nurses, school teachers, and other children’s workers have been women. I think women tend to be more patient with children, and I think this is by design.
From what I have seen in churches, men are more interested in doctrinal formulations, in systematic theology, and are not as afraid to make tough decisions. They are less likely to be driven by emotions.
Again, I’m sure there are exceptions, but God has created men and women differently. Listen to the words of a female physician, a cardiologist named Paula Johnson: “Every cell has a sex—and what that means is that men and women are different down to the cellular and molecular level. It means that we’re different across all of our organs, from our brains to our hearts, our lungs, our joints.” Men and women are different by design, and God made men to be leaders, to be heads. This does not mean men are inherently better or more intelligent. It just means men and women are different, fitted for different roles. That’s why God did not intend women to be pastors. For example, how could a husband be the head of his wife if his wife were his pastor?
Before I make a few more general comments on this whole topic, we do have one more verse to explore, and it’s a hard one to understand. In verse 15, Paul writes, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” There are three different ways to take this. Some people think the “she” in the first part of the verse refers to Eve. Salvation came to the world through her bearing children, because the distant offspring of Eve, Jesus, is the Savior (Gen. 3:15). It’s certainly true that even though Eve sinned, she became “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20)—that’s what her name means. God used a sinful woman to bear children, who had children, who had children . . . which eventually led to the birth of Jesus. So, there is great value in bearing children, and only women can have children. Mothers should be honored greatly. Having children is no less of a task than pastoring a church. Obviously, we wouldn’t be here without mothers.
That being said, I don’t think this is what Paul means, because the second half of the verse, “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control,” doesn’t fit this interpretation.
Some people think that this verse doesn’t speak of spiritual salvation, but of physical deliverance through the process of having a child. In the Bible, the word “saved” sometimes refers just to a temporal, physical deliverance (as in Acts 27:20, 31). In the ancient world, mothers often died in childbirth. Some people think that if women gladly except their God-given roles and live godly, faithful lives, they wouldn’t die in the process of giving birth. That’s a possible reading, but we don’t have any evidence that faithful Christian women didn’t die giving birth, while only those unfaithful, ungodly women perished.
A third reading, and probably the right one, is that women will be saved in an ultimate, spiritual sense, if they accept their God-given role, which is represented here by motherhood, and if they continue in faith and godly living. Now, this doesn’t mean that every woman is going to give birth. Being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:7–8). But only women can get pregnant and give birth, and Paul refers to this as one unique aspect of womanhood. And this also doesn’t mean that salvation is earned. Salvation is a gift from God. But we have to think about it this way: If God has saved a person from sin and ultimate condemnation, he has also given that person the Holy Spirit to change that person, to transform that person. A changed heart responds to Jesus in faith, trusting him not only for salvation, but also trusting his words, his authority, and his design for our lives. The proof that a person has been changed is faith, godly living, and an acceptance of God’s design. This is true of both men and women.
The truth is that we all have limitations and limited roles to play. We all must submit to authorities. The word “submit” is not a four-letter word; it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Unfortunately, in America we tend to be allergic to authorities and see submission as a curse instead of a gift. Honestly, I think this is a source of unhappiness. If we learned to embrace God’s design instead of fighting against it, we would be more content.
God has designed authority and submission on many levels. Children must submit to parents (Eph. 6:1–3). Employees must submit to employers (Eph. 6:5–8). Yes, wives are told they should submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22). In the church, people should submit to pastors (Heb. 13:17). All of us should submit to civic leaders, to governing politicians (Rom. 13:1–7; Tit. 3:1; 1 Pet. 2:13–17). And everyone should ultimately submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, who even submitted himself to his Father. The fact that Jesus submitted to his Father doesn’t mean he is less in value. Jesus is God the Son, no less divine than God the Father. But even the God-man knows what it’s like to submit.
And Jesus shows what it’s like for a man to lead in love. He was and is authoritative. He wasn’t afraid to speak hard truths or perform hard tasks. But he laid down his life for his people, both men and women. He died for them. A real man doesn’t rule with an iron fist. A real man leads, but he also sacrifices. The fact that Jesus did both shows that we can trust his him and submit to him as our King and Savior. And if we submit to Jesus, we’ll trust what he says about submitting to merely human authorities.
This sermon has already been long enough, and though I would love to save more to defend what the Bible says, all I can say now is something that Jesus said: “wisdom is justified by all her children” (Luke 7:35). If we all trusted God’s words regarding men and women, I believe we would see a more just, well-ordered world. But it will take some time to see the results of what we do, just like it takes time to see what kind of adults children will become. I firmly believe that the fruit of our culture will be rotten. Literally, the children of a culture that rebels against God will be worse off. If we trust what God has spoken and lived accordingly, things would be better.
Here’s a closing word to men and to women. Men, embrace your role as leaders, but lead lovingly. Lead in prayer. Don’t dominate women, but don’t also abdicate your role as leaders. I think the reason why women have become leaders is often because men refused to lead or were simply lousy leaders. All of us will lead somewhere in life. If you’re married, love your wives as Jesus loved the church. If you’re a leader in the church, lead according to God’s word and the example of Jesus. If you’re a leader at work, do the same.
Women, you are in no way inferior to men. You are made in God’s image. You are very valuable in God’s kingdom. Though Jesus was and is male, and though he chose male disciples, his ministry was supported by women and they witnessed his burial and his empty tomb. Women can serve in all kinds of ways in the church. They are really only barred from being pastors, or from preaching—which isn’t just imparting information, but is also an authoritative task. But women can teach women and children, women can mentor women, women can serve in a variety of ways, and women have served and can serve as missionaries. Eve was told she could eat all kinds of fruit except one. Women, you can choose to serve in a variety of ways except one. Will you embrace that limitation, and look at what you can do and not at what you can’t? Or will you not trust God and look at that forbidden fruit as something that is good and kept from you by God?
Really, that’s a choice for all of us, both men and women. Will we trust what God’s word or not? Will we accept what he has offered us, or will be bitterly want what he has forbidden? That is the great struggle for all human beings. If we trust Jesus for salvation, we will also trust God’s word and design. God gives us good gifts, including the gift of being a man or a woman. Let us accept his gifts with thankful hearts and serve him in love and humility.
- Or corresponding to; also verse 20 ↑
- Or shall be toward (see 4:7) ↑
- Paula Johnson, “His and Hers . . . Healthcare,” TED talk, December 2013, quoted in Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018), 196. ↑
- There are too many verses that speak of Jesus’ lordship, his reign and rule over everything, to list here. ↑
Can we take what the Bible says about gender roles seriously? Pastor Brian Watson takes a look at a controversial passage, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, that discusses the roles of men and women in the church.