One of the great traps in life is sexual sin. Find out what wisdom says about sex and marriage and temptation by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on June 21, 2020.
Solomon warns his son to stay away from a forbidden woman and to find enjoyment in his own wife. How does this apply to all of us, both men and women? Listen to find out. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on June 7, 2020.
Many of us have been spending more time at home than we’re used to spending. Some of us have spent more time at home than we want to spend. A few weeks ago, my wife said she felt like she was “in prison.” Isn’t it strange to think that we don’t feel at home while at home? Shouldn’t home be where we feel best?
Perhaps what we’re longing for is something more than being home. Perhaps we’re longing to be in our real home, the place where we really feel best.
C. S. Lewis addressed this issue in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” He said that we have this “desire for our own far-off country,” our real home. What we’re longing for cannot be found in this world. But still we try to find it here and now. We try to something that will satisfy our longings in beauty and pleasures. Some of us may try to find what we’re looking for in the past. If only we could back, then everything would be right. Lewis says, “But this is all a cheat. . . . These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
We all need a people, a place, and a purpose. Without those things, we will never be satisfied. We were made to be God’s people, to dwell with him, and to live for him. What we really need to be satisfied is a right relationship with God. We were made for God. Being with him is our true home. Taking pleasure in praising him is our purpose. As Augustine prayed over sixteen hundred years ago, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” 
The story of the Bible is a story about leaving home and getting lost in our wanderings. It is a story about God calling us back home. He sends things into our lives to get our attention, to summon us back to himself—if only we would listen and return to him. It is a story about God coming to take us back home. And the end of the Bible is a depiction of that glorious homecoming, when all things will finally be well.
Today, we’re going to focus on the part where God sends things into our lives to call us back to himself. I think that’s appropriate in the age of the coronavirus. I don’t know exactly why this virus exists, but I think it’s possible that God is using this event to get our attention, to remind us of how much we need him.
Today we’re going to look at the book of Amos, from the Old Testament. Amos is one of the so-called “minor prophets.” However, I wouldn’t use that name. Some people refer to the “major prophets,” like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They use that name because these are some of the longest books in the Bible. And then they refer to the “minor prophets,” the last twelve books of the Bible, which are significantly shorter. But it’s a mistake to think of these books as “minor.” They are very important.
Let’s get a little historical background for this book. It begins with these words:
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake (Amos 1:1).
Amos was a shepherd who lived in the eighth century B.C. During this time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel, and during this time Jeroboam II was king (793–753 B.C.). The southern kingdom was called Judah, and during this time Uzziah was king (791–740 B.C.). Both kings reigned for over forty years, which meant that this was a time of unusual stability. It was also “a period of unprecedented prosperity.” Both kingdoms were wealthy. But these kingdoms were surrounded by enemies. In particular, the northern kingdom was threatened by the Assyrian empire, which was becoming the world’s superpower.
The book begins with a word of judgment against the nations around Israel and Judah. This is what the second verse of the book says:
And he said:
“The Lord roars from Zion
and utters his voice from Jerusalem;
the pastures of the shepherds mourn,
and the top of Carmel withers” (Amos 1:2).
Amos is sharing a word of judgment against the nations, a word from God, whose voice “roars” from Jerusalem.
First, there is a warning against Syria, represented by their capital city of Damascus (Amos 1:3–5). This was the country north of Israel. Then, there is a warning against the Philistines who lived to the west (Amos 1:6–8). There is also a word of judgment against Tyre, also to the west (Amos 1:9–10). Then, God promises to punish nations to the east: Edom (Amos 1:11–12), Ammon, (Amos 1:13–15), and Moab (Amos 2:1–3).
Why was God going to punish these nations? The Philistines helped Edom by exiling Israelites there (Amos 1:6). The Edomites fought against Israel (Amos 1:11). And the Ammonites did, too. In fact, Amos says “they have ripped open pregnant women” (Amos 1:13). That’s how brutal war can be.
Now, if you lived in Amos’s day, and you lived in Judah and Israel, you would be happy to hear that God’s judgment was coming against these nations. You would think, “Finally, God is doing something to punish these people!” It would be like a Christian who is a Republican hearing that God is going to punish Democrats. God was finally going to punish all the enemies that surrounded Israel.
But then Amos delivers some shocking news. God is going to punish Judah (Amos 2:4–5) and Israel (Amos 2:6–15). Why? Look at Amos 2:4–5:
4 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Judah,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they have rejected the law of the Lord,
and have not kept his statutes,
but their lies have led them astray,
those after which their fathers walked.
5 So I will send a fire upon Judah,
and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.”
Judah rejected God’s word, his law. They didn’t keep his commandments.
Then, look at Amos 2:6–8:
6 Thus says the Lord:
“For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
7 those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
and turn aside the way of the afflicted;
a man and his father go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;|
8 they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge,
and in the house of their God they drink
the wine of those who have been fined.
The rich and powerful in Israel bought and sold people. They “trampled the poor.” There was also sexual immorality. Father and son had sex with the same woman. This might have been connected to pagan worship practices. Strange as it may seem, sex was part of the worship in some religions. And the people committed idolatry, which is spiritual adultery. God was supposed to be their only object of worship, but they cheated on him. They worshiped at all kinds of altars built to worship foreign gods.
These are specific charges against a specific people at a specific time and place, but these are some of the major sins in the Bible: using and oppressing people, usually through some kind of economic means; committing sexual immorality; and worship false gods. In fact, you could say that misusing money means that your god is money. Having sex outside of the only proper context for sex—marriage between a man and a woman—means that sex is your god. When anything other than the true God becomes the most important thing in our life, the thing that causes us to love, trust, and obey it, that is our god. That is what we’re worshiping. But we were made for God. And God has every right to punish us when we’re destroying ourselves by failing to live according to his design.
Failing to love God and live for him is also a failure to acknowledge what he’s done for us. God says that he brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and sustained them until he led them to their own land (Amos 2:10). For all of us, he has given us life and sustains our lives. He is our Maker, the one who sustains every breath and heartbeat, every second that we live. Yet we run away from him.
In chapter 3, we read this:
1 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
2 “You only have I known
of all the families of the earth;|
therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities (Amos 3:1–2).
God reminds Israel that he rescued them from slavery in Egypt. And he says that of all the people on the earth, they alone were the ones he “knew.” Now, God is omniscient. He knows everything. He knows everything about us. What this means is that the Israelites were the only ones he made a covenant with. He revealed himself to them. He gave them promises that were tied to his commandments. If they would trust him and live life on his terms, they would live. But they didn’t.
So, God says, because you were my special people and turned away from me, I will punish you. The reason why they are going to be punished is because they should have known better. God had been exceedingly kind to them, and they didn’t appreciate him.
So, God warns them of punishment, punishment that will come through their enemies. He wants them to know that when enemies defeat their cities, it is because he has brought that about. In Amos 3:6, God says,
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it?
Nothing happens unless God has somehow planned it, or even caused it, to occur. That was true of the judgment that would come upon Israel.
But God doesn’t punish because he is unloving. He punishes in order to correct us. He was sending disaster upon Israel to get their attention.
Let’s look at Amos 4:6–13:
6 “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
7 “I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
8 so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
9 “I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!
God gave his people famine, bad crops, pestilence, and military defeat—“yet you did not return to me.” That is such as sad refrain. God caused these things to fall upon Israel so that they would return to him, but they didn’t.
I want us to see that God has the power to control all these events. He controls the weather. He causes rain to fall, and he also causes drought. He can direct kings and armies. He uses these things to bring people back to himself.
Now, you may think, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament. God in the New Testament wouldn’t do such a thing.” But look at Luke 13:1–5:
1 There were some present at that very time who told him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
People tell Jesus that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Jews. That’s a form of moral evil, the kind of evil that people do to each other. Jesus asks if this happened because these Jews were worse sinners. The answer is “no.” And he says something like that will happen to everyone who doesn’t repent, who doesn’t turn to God. Then Jesus mentions how eighteen people died when a tower fell. We don’t know why the tower fell. Maybe it fell because it was poorly made. Perhaps the people who made it made it on the cheap, or they didn’t calculate how strong the tower needed to be. Perhaps it was a minor earthquake that caused the tower to fall. It could have been a form of natural evil, the bad things that happen in nature. Again, he says that the people who died that way weren’t worse sinners. But everyone who fails to repent, to turn back to God, will experience something similar.
In short, every time that some evil occurs, it is a reminder to turn back to God. The reason why these evils occur is that humans turned away from God from the very beginning. God made us to love, trust, and obey him and we don’t do that. We want to be our own gods and goddesses. So, God uses evils to punish us, to get our attention, to cause us to turn back to him.
This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes,
What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’
Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t withhold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.” God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
So, after these words of warning in Amos, God says to Israel: “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4). “Seek the Lord and live” (Amos 5:6). And,
14 Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
as you have said.
15 Hate evil, and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:14–15).
God tells the people to seek him, to seek good and forsake evil, so that they may live. Now, this doesn’t mean that we can return to God by doing good things. We cannot get to God through our own efforts. We know this from the rest of the Bible. Our sin, our rebellion against God, runs deep and it taints every part of us and everything we do. We can’t drive out the evil from within us. But if we seek God, we will want to do what is good.
But when we return to God, it’s more than just paying lip service. God wants more than just for us to do a few religious things. He wants our hearts. He wants changed lives. Look at Amos 5:21–24:
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
One of the sins of Israel was religious hypocrisy. They thought they could worship God and also worship other gods. They thought they could go through the motions by praying and singing and offering sacrifices to God, and then go and live like all the pagan nations around them. But that isn’t pleasing to God. In fact, God says he hates that. He hates religious festivals when they aren’t done from the heart. He hates singing, even songs that are about him, if it comes from unclean lips. He doesn’t want sacrifices made by people who aren’t sacrificing their whole lives. Instead, God wants people to love him and to live according to his word. That’s what justice is.
You may notice that Amos quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. here. That’s a joke, of course. Martin Luther King quoted Amos as a call to justice. But this justice isn’t just “social” justice. There’s only one form of justice in the Bible, and that is loving God and loving people the way that God wants us to. If we do justice in the public square but do immoral things in our private lives, that isn’t justice. It won’t do to provide for the poor and then engage in sexual immorality, for example. God isn’t impressed by that. He sees our condition. He demands righteousness.
And that leaves us in a bind. We aren’t perfectly righteous. We are not just. Even when we try to praise God, there’s still some taint of sin. Amos knew this. When he was shown visions of judgment in chapter 7, he says, “O Lord God, please forgive!”
How can we be forgiven by God? Perhaps the clue comes in Amos. In chapter 5, God says there will be a “day of the Lord,” a day of “darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18). This will be a day of punishment, but it’s also a day of salvation. In chapter 8, we read these words:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.” (Amos 8:9)
On the day of the Lord, a day of punishment and a day of salvation, the sun will go down at noon. Darkness will cover the earth at a time when there should be broad daylight.
This day of the Lord came almost three thousand years ago, when the only righteous man who ever lived, Jesus of Nazareth, was put to death. Jesus, the Son of God, was sent “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). He came from a far-off country, from heaven, to bring people back to their God. He did this by living the perfect life that we should live but don’t, and then by dying in our place, taking the punishment for our sin that we deserve. When Jesus was crucified, darkness came upon the land at noon, a sign that he was enduring the wrath of God that we have earned. He didn’t do this for everyone. Only those who turn to Jesus in faith, who seek the Lord, are forgiven of their sins and will live with God forever.
We know Jesus is the one who brings us back home to God because in chapter 9 of Amos, God promises that after punishment, there will be a day of rebuilding. Look at Amos 9:11–12:
11 “In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this.
God promises to rebuild “the booth of David.” That’s a reference to David’s kingdom. David, the second king of Israel, was a great king. But David had already died, and his kingdom was divided. Yet God promised that a descendant of David would come and build a kingdom that will never end. This perfect king would defeat Israel’s enemies and bring about peace and justice that would last forever. We know from the New Testament that Jesus is that King. And he is calling a remnant of people “from all nations” into his kingdom. This passage is quoted in the Acts 15 when Jewish Christians are trying to figure out how Gentile Christians should live. The point is that the true Israel is everyone—Jew, Gentile, American, Chinese, black, white, male, female, rich, poor—who is united to Jesus by faith.
And those people will go home. They will live with God forever in a perfect world. Look at the end of the book, Amos 9:13–15:
13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,|
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.
This garden imagery reminds us of the garden of Eden, where humanity was first “planted.” We were kicked out of the garden because we didn’t love, trust, and obey God. How do we get back to the garden? Jesus. We’re told that he will come back to earth one day to make everything right. Those who trust in him will live in this perfect world. The images here are just a taste of what this perfect world will be like, a world of prosperity and pleasure. But most importantly, it will be home because our God dwells there.
Why do things like viruses occur? Why is the world disrupted economically? We could provide naturalistic answers, answers that only appeal to what we can see with our own eyes. Or, we could say, “Well, there’s no good reason.” Or, we could spend our time blaming politicians. But ultimately, God sends these things to get our attention. They are the megaphone he uses to rouse a deaf world. Are we listening? Are we turning back to God?
God lets us go our own way, running away from him to pursue our false gods. But God uses difficult events to bring us back to him. Will we answer his call? If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to God while there is time. Learn about Jesus and follow him. If you want to know what that would look like in your life, send me a message and I’ll help you any way that I can. Christians, take God seriously. Don’t just pay him lip service. He deserves more than that.
Turn to God while there is time. If we continue to run away from God, he may very well let us go our own way—forever. And that will be a dreadful thing. Even in the book of Amos, there is a famine that is worse than lack of food, and there is a drought that is worse than lack of water. Amos 8:11 says,
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God,
“when I will send a famine on the land—
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
The most horrifying thing is not to have God in your life, not to hear from him. Now, if you’re not a Christian, you may think that you don’t have God in your life and that you don’t hear from him now. But that’s not true. God is everywhere and all of creation speaks of God (Ps. 19:1–6). But there will be a day when all who have rejected God will be removed from him entirely. To be cut off from God means to be cut off from love, beauty, truth, light, and life. It’s worse than we can ever imagine.
But God has come to do everything you need to be put back into a right relationship with him. And right now, he is calling you back home. Come to Jesus, the truth, the life, and the way back to your God.
- C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper One, 2001), 29. ↑
- Ibid., 30–31. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 423. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36. ↑
- Ibid., 36. ↑
- Ibid., 83. ↑
The book of Amos tells us that God brings difficult things into our lives to turn us back to him. Are we listening? Will we turn to God and find our way home, or will we resist him still? Pastor Brian Watson preached this message on May 3, 2020.
Last week, I asked us how we respond when we are hurt or attacked. What comes out of us during those moments of great pressure reveal what is inside of us.
That’s a very important point. But there’s something else we should think about. What happens when we’re the ones who fail? What do we do when we do what is wrong? In other words, what do we do with our failure, our mistakes, our sins? When we do what is wrong, how can we move forward? Is there hope for us? Can we be forgiven of serious failures?
Well, Christianity says there is great hope for sinners. This is why we refer to the central message of Christianity as the gospel, which simply means good news. Though we fail, God is able and willing to forgive his children.
We will see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. We’ll see what happens when Peter fails. Though this passage doesn’t give us the full story, we can look to other parts of the Bible to see what happened to Peter after he failed.
So, without further ado, let’s turn to Luke 22:54–62. While you’re turning there, I just want to remind us that this passage is among one of many that is set on the night before Jesus died, the night he was betrayed and arrested. Last week, we saw that Jesus was arrested. Peter tried to defend Jesus with the sword, but Jesus told him not to do that. The disciples fled at Jesus’ arrest (Matt. 26:56). But Peter trailed behind Jesus and the Jewish leaders who arrested him, and Luke’s attention now turns to Peter.
Let’s now read Luke 22:54–62:
54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. 55 And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. 56 Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” 57 But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” 58 And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” 59 And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” 62 And he went out and wept bitterly.
Peter follows Jesus and those who arrested him from the Garden of Gethsemane back into Jerusalem, to the high priest’s house. Why was Peter following Jesus? We’re not told. Did he think he could take his sword out again and free Jesus? Did he simply want to see what would happen? We don’t know. But it seems like Peter wanted to do the right thing. He didn’t simply run away from danger, from the Jewish leaders who were hostile to Jesus and who would surely be hostile to Jesus’ disciples. Peter could have done that, and that would have been the safest thing to do. Instead, Peter follows Jesus and his captors from a distance.
While waiting in the courtyard, Peter tries to blend with other people who are warming themselves by a fire. Then, he is noticed. A servant sees Peter, recognizes him, and says, “This man was also with him.” If Peter said, “You’ve got that right!” he might have been arrested and put on trial alongside Jesus. Peter must have recognized the danger. So, in that moment of pressure, he lies to save his own skin.
Shortly thereafter, another person recognizes Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. Now, Peter could have told the truth at that point, and confessed that he lied earlier. But as is so often the case, once we tell lies, instead of admitting what we have done, we double down in our dishonesty. I remember when I was a kid there used to be a public service announcement that played among commercial breaks of cartoons. And that PSA said something like, “When you tell one lie, it leads to another. So, you tell two lies to cover each other. Then you tell three lies, then, oh brother, you’re up to your neck in lies.”
After that second lie, about an hour goes by. Now, you might think that Peter would come to his senses, realize that he has twice denied Jesus, and resolve to tell the truth, no matter the consequences. But he doesn’t do that. Again, he is recognized. This time, someone figures out that Peter is from Galilee, just like Jesus, and infers that Peter must be one of Jesus’ followers. Peter says quite strongly that he doesn’t know Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, it says, “he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man’” (Matt. 26:74).
At that moment, a rooster crows, Jesus looks at Peter from a distance, and Peter remembers what Jesus had predicted. Earlier in this same chapter of Luke, Jesus told Peter that Peter would deny him. This is what we read in Luke 22:31–34:
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
And, sure enough, Jesus’ prediction comes to pass. Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.
We don’t know what kind of look Jesus gave Peter. Was it a look of sadness, of sorrow that a friend would deny even knowing him? It probably wasn’t a look of “I told you so.” Whatever it was, Peter remembered what Jesus had said, and left, weeping bitterly.
I think this episode is important for a number of reasons, primarily for what it teaches us about failure. If you’re like me, in moments of pressure and even in moments of panic, you might have done the wrong thing. You might have had many moments of failing to do the right thing when you’ve felt under pressure. And you might feel a great sense of guilt and shame because of your failure. But there is hope, and I think that is why the Gospel writers tell us about Peter and his failure.
I want to make a number of observations about this passage and about other passages that discuss Peter. The first is one that I made a few weeks ago when we read about how Jesus predicted Peter’s failure. Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, his inner ring of followers who would become his apostles, his authorized messengers. (Judas, who betrayed Jesus, was later replaced by Matthias.) Jesus chose men who were not perfect. They were not the most righteous, the most religious, the richest and most powerful men. They weren’t stupid, but they were also not elite scholars. They were people that were a bit like you and me.
When Jesus called Peter to follow him, Peter at first thought he was unworthy. In Luke 5, Jesus tells Simon Peter to follow him. After Jesus performed a miracle to demonstrate his divine power, Peter told him, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). What kind of sin did Peter have in his life? We don’t know. But if he is anything like you and me, there were some things he had done that bothered him, moral failures of which he was ashamed. He must have thought that the things he had done would disqualify him from serving someone like Jesus in any kind of official capacity.
But Jesus deliberately chose Peter. Jesus knew that Peter was a sinful man. And Jesus also knew that Peter would sin again. As we have already seen, Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. Yet Jesus chose this man to be the leader of this band of twelve brothers. And that is a picture of grace. God uses imperfect people as his servants. He uses people who have failed, people who have cracked under pressure. We might say God uses cracked and broken vessels to carry his perfect word to the world. God doesn’t have to do this. But God is merciful, not giving us over to what we deserve—at least not immediately. And for those who follow Jesus, putting their trust in him, God forgives all sin. And God doesn’t just wipe away that sin. He also gives his children good things that they don’t deserve.
So, the first thing to see is that Jesus chose this sinful man to be his servant, knowing his sin, past, present, and future.
The second thing to see is that what Peter did in this episode was truly wrong. It was no small thing to deny knowing Jesus. In Luke 12, Jesus said this:
8 And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, 9 but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God (Luke 12:8–9).
Peter denied Jesus before men. Jesus says the one who does that “will be denied before the angels of God,” which is a way of saying that God will say, “I don’t know that person” on judgment day (Matt. 7:23). It’s important that we understand that Jesus means that if one denies Jesus their whole life, they will be condemned. If one ends one’s life in a state of denying who Jesus is—Savior, Lord, Son of God—then that person will be condemned. But if it’s wrong to deny Jesus for one’s whole life, it seems like it’s wrong to deny Jesus at any point in one’s life. And that’s especially true of someone like Peter, who was no casual acquaintance of Jesus. Peter spent two or three years alongside Jesus. Peter was Jesus’ student, his brother, and friend. To deny knowing someone whom you actually know very well is a form of betrayal. Peter not only lied, but he separated himself from Jesus in order to protect himself from whatever harm the Jewish leaders might do to him. This was definitely a wrong thing to do.
We might wonder how someone like Peter, who had such privileged access to Jesus, who had seen Jesus’ many miracles, who was taught so much by Jesus, could do this. On one level, we could say that Peter panicked. He was scared in that moment. Instead of trusting Jesus, who had predicted what would happen to him, he was tempted to do the wrong thing in order to save himself. I know that I have sinned in moments of panic. There were times when I didn’t have a premeditated plan to sin, but when I was afraid and panicked, I did what was wrong. You might say that in those moments, we’re not thinking clearly. It Peter thought clearly, he would recall Jesus’ prophecies. He would have remembered Jesus’ power and promises. He would have thought, “No matter what these Jewish leaders might do to me, I’ll be okay.” But there’s something about sin that is irrational. It doesn’t always make sense.
The third thing we should see is Peter’s response to what happened. Though Peter didn’t come to his senses during that time when he denied Jesus three times, he did come to his senses immediately after, when the rooster crowed and when Jesus looked his way. At that moment, Peter knew exactly what he had done. And he wept bitterly. That is such a moving moment. And it’s something that I can relate to easily. When we sin, and then when we realize what we have done, there is a real bitterness to that realization. Sometimes, that bitterness is immediate. Other times, the bitter realization that we have failed comes later. There are times when it resurfaces again and again, whenever we think of the wrong things we have done.
I wonder if every once in a while, during the rest of his life, Peter thought about what he had done, and a moment of bitter realization reemerged. I also wonder if the apostle Paul had those moments. Even after Jesus rose from the grave, Paul opposed Jesus and his followers for a while. He arrested Christians so that they might be put to death for blasphemy. He approved of the first Christian martyr’s death (see Acts 8:1–3). Though Paul had been forgiven of all those sins when he came to see who Jesus really is and to put his trust in him, Paul still thought of himself as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). I wonder if Peter thought of himself in similar ways, and if every once in a while, whenever his mind thought again of these events, the bitter taste of that memory of his more failure came back into his mouth.
At any rate, sin leaves a bitter taste. At the moment, it feels good. But later, when we realize what we had done, we feel guilty. We’re ashamed. We can’t believe that we would do something like that. Peter knew what that was like.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happened to Peter after this event. Specifically, Luke doesn’t give us information about whether Peter was forgiven. He just tells us that Peter ran to the empty tomb after Jesus died and rose from the grave. And in the sequel to his Gospel, the book of Acts, Luke depicts Peter as a leader of the apostles.
But John, in his Gospel, does tell us what happened. After Jesus rose from the grave, Jesus had a conversation with Peter. This is what we read in 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.”
Why does Jesus ask Peter three times if he loves him? Surely, his asking this question three times mirrors the three times that Peter denied Jesus. Now, Jesus asks Peter to affirm his love for him three times. And though John doesn’t specifically mention forgiveness or reconciliation, we understand that Jesus was forgiving Peter.
But we should also notice this: Jesus was reaffirming Peter’s position as an apostle. As we have already seen, when Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him, he told Peter to strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32). And here, Jesus tells Peter to “feed his sheep,” which most likely means that Peter should “feed” Christians “the word of God,” which is their spiritual food.
The point is that though Peter had sinned in a very serious way, he was forgiven, and he retained his position as an apostle. We can easily imagine Jesus forgiving Peter, but saying, “Peter, I love you, and I forgive you for denying me, but you failed your apostle audition. We’re going to have to give your position to someone else.” But Jesus doesn’t just forgive Peter. He continues to use Peter as his servant. Peter didn’t deserve to be an apostle. He hadn’t earned that position. But God is gracious. He gives us gifts. He uses sinners. And that should give us hope. You may feel that you’ve done things that are so wrong that here is no way God can forgive you. Or, you may understand that you’re forgiven, but you still think your sin disqualifies you to serve God. You may think, “Who am I to tell other people about Jesus when I’ve denied Jesus by my behavior?” When that happens, think about Peter.
Another thing that we should think about as we think about Peter is that his life was changed. Though he was a sinful man, and though he certainly sinned in this episode, his grew in faith and obedience. The book of Acts makes that clear. And we know from sources outside of the Bible that Peter would eventually be killed for being a Christian. Roughly thirty-five years after this event, he would not deny Jesus in order to save his life. I’m sure he learned from his sin. I’m sure he was strengthened by the knowledge that though Jesus died, he rose from the grave. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit gave Peter strength that he didn’t possess on his own.
God loves us so much that when we are adopted into his family through faith in Jesus, his Son, he wants us to grow. He doesn’t want us to stay the same. He changes us from the inside out. And we need to turn away from our old sinful habits. We need to repent. We need to pursue a greater knowledge of God. We need to obey God’s commands. God expects that of his children.
But that doesn’t mean that Peter never sinned again. I’m sure he did. I’m sure he had moments where he harbored bad thoughts and desires. And we’re told elsewhere in the Bible that in another moment of pressure, Peter panicked once again and did the wrong thing.
In one of Paul’s letters, Galatians, he tells of an episode where he and Peter were in the city of Antioch, where there was a church that had both Jewish and Gentile Christians. It’s hard for us to understand how radical that was. There was a huge divide between Jews and Gentiles. Jewish people thought Gentiles were unclean. This wasn’t just some sort of ethnic or racial division. This was also a religious division. But one of the amazing things about Christianity is that people from all kinds of backgrounds become one when they are united to Jesus by faith. In Christ, there is no Jew and Gentile, or black or white, or male and female (to paraphrase Gal. 3:28).
Peter knew that. But when Jewish leaders came to Antioch, he felt pressured to distance himself from Gentiles. He had been eating with them, which was a thing Jewish people didn’t do. But when these Jewish leaders came, Peter was afraid of them, or at least of their opinions, and so he stopped eating with the Gentiles. In doing that, he was denying the Gospel. This is what Paul writes in Galatians 2:11–14:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Peter was acting like a hypocrite, like someone who never really understood the Gospel. And his behavior led another Christian, Barnabas, to act like a hypocrite, too. But Paul confronted Peter and told him he was wrong.
The point is that even after coming to Jesus, we still will fail. Those failures should be fewer in number and not as serious. But still, we wrestle with sin. And there are times when we fail.
Such is the power of sin. In our moments of weakness, when we are scared, when we are tired, when we have taken our eyes off of Jesus, we might panic and do the wrong thing. Sin promises us safety and security. It promises us pleasures. It promises us freedom. These are false promises, but when we’re not thinking clearly, we believe them. We fail to trust Jesus and we disobey him. And then we come to our senses once again and taste the bitterness of sin. And that is painful.
When I think about this tendency to fall back into sin, I think about different things. I think about songs. One of my favorite song writers is a man named Tom Waits. He has a beat-up voice and an odd sense of humor, but that’s part of what appeals to me. In one of his songs called “Walk Away,” he sings these words:
There are things I’ve done I can’t erase.
I want to look in the mirror and see another face.
I said, “never,” while I’m doing it again.
I wanna walk away, start over again.
I can relate to that. I can see the things that I’ve done wrong and desperately want to erase them. I want to be a different person. I wouldn’t mind looking at the mirror and seeing another face. I’ve told myself, “I’m never going to do that again.” And then I have.
There’s another song I think of, one that was sung by Johnny Cash towards the end of his career. (Though the song was written by Nick Lowe, not Cash.) It’s called “The Beast in Me.” It seems to describe that inner, sinful self that we try to suppress, but who escapes from his cage to do bad things. There’s something inside of us that is a like a beast. We try to keep it shut up in its cage. But there are times when it escapes and overcomes us, and we fail.
I also think about prayers. There’s a wonderful collection of prayers written by Puritans called The Valley of Vision. One prayer in that book is called “Yet I Sin.” Here is part of that prayer:
My faculties have been a weapon of revolt
as a rebel I have misused my strength,
and served the foul adversary of thy kingdom.
Give me grace to bewail my insensate folly,
Grant me to know that the way of transgressors
that evil paths are wretched paths,
that to depart from thee is to lose all good.
All these sins I mourn, lament, and for them
Work in me more profound and abiding repentance;
Give me the fullness of a godly grief
that trembles and fears,
yet ever trusts and loves,
which is ever powerful, and ever confident;
Grant that through the tears of repentance
I may see more clearly the brightness
and glories of the saving cross.
In that same collection of prayers, there’s another one called “The Dark Guest.” “The Dark Guest” is like “The Beast in Me.” It says, in part:
Destroy, O God, the dark guest within
whose hidden presence makes my life a hell.
Yet thou hast not left me here without grace;
The cross still stands and meets my needs
in the deepest straits of the soul. . . .
The memory of my great sins, my many
temptations, my falls,
bring afresh into my mind the remembrance
of thy great help, of thy support from heaven,
of the great grace that saved such a wretch
as I am.
There is no treasure so wonderful
as that continuous experience of thy grace
toward me which alone can subdue
the risings of sin within:
Give me more of it.
These prayers confess to God that hellish nature of sin. They make no excuses for committing sin. Doing what is wrong is evil. We are without excuse. But these prayers cry out to God to bring about repentance. They ask God to destroy this beast within. And these prayers recall God’s remedy for sin. “The cross still stands and meets my needs in the deepest straits of the soul.” God the Father sent God the Son, who came willingly, to bear the penalty for sin. Jesus died on the cross, experiencing great physical and spiritual pain, in order to pay the penalty of sin for whoever would come to him in faith. This is the way that we are forgiven by God. Even the bitter memories of great sins “bring afresh into [our minds] the remembrance of [God’s] great help, . . . of the great help that saved such a wretch as I am.”
If you have felt the bitter taste of sin, if you know that you have done wrong, if you feel the guilt and shame that come along with doing wrong, I urge you to turn to Jesus. He stands ready to forgive us all our sins. All of them. We must trust that this is true. If you are not yet a Christian, turn to Jesus now.
Of course, we must also desire to be changed, to stop living the way we have always lived. But that doesn’t mean we will suddenly become perfect. We will continue to struggle with sin. Christians, if you struggle with sin, or if you struggle with the memory of your sin, turn to Jesus. There may be something in your past that you think of from time to time and think, “How could I do that? How could I do something that bad? How I could do something that I know is wrong? What was I thinking? How could I be that bad of a person?” When that happens, don’t just look back to your sins. Keep looking further back in the past. Look back to something that happened almost two thousand years ago, when the Son of God laid down his life to pay for your sins. Look to Jesus. Look to the cross. When those memories of sin come back, think of what Jesus has done for you. Experience once again God’s cleansing grace. And be thankful.
This is the best of news for failures and losers like you and me. Not long ago, I was reading through 1 Samuel again, and I came across a verse that I must have read several times. But this time, it really stood out. It was 1 Samuel 22:2, and it described the kind of people that started to follow David even before he was king. It says, “And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.” Those in distress, those bitter in soul, found hope in David. How much more should people like that find their hope in the son of David, the true King of Israel, Jesus Christ. He beckons those who are crushed by the weight of sin to come to him and find rest. He will forgive you, cleanse you, restore you, and equip you to serve him.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- The full prayer can be found here: https://banneroftruth.org/us/devotional/yet-i-sin. ↑
- The full prayer can be found here: https://banneroftruth.org/us/devotional/the-dark-guest. ↑
What do we do with our failures, our mistakes, our sins? Peter, one of Jesus’ followers, denied knowing Jesus. Find out what we can learn from what happened to Peter, and how there is hope for the greatest of sinners. Brian Watson preached this sermon on February 23, 2020.
Last Sunday, news of a death shocked many people. We found out that Kobe Bryant, one of the NBA’s most successful players, died in a helicopter crash along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven other people. The news of any death is shocking. But I think what shook people was the fact that Bryant was only 41. He had retired less than four years ago. He was healthy and wealthy and accomplished. People like him aren’t supposed to die this young. They are supposed to live long lives. We would expect him to go on to work on television or to coach and to die at an old age. But Bryant, like anyone else, was mortal.
Such news reminds us that life is fragile. We’re only one phone call, text message, email, letter, or police notification away from receiving devastating news, whether that’s a death or some other emergency, or having a relative or friend betray us in some way, or something lesser like being fired or finding out we’ve lost money. There’s no guarantee that things in this life are secure.
There are times when we will feel like we’re shaken. That feeling may come even when there’s not some apparent emergency. We may feel shaken when we’re depressed or anxious, overwhelmed, when the weight of the world is too much for us to bear. We may look back on our lives and have a great sense of regret and shame for what we’ve done, and we may feel like we’re coming undone. We may have great worries about how we’ll make it through another week, another month, or another year.
In short, there are times when we feel like we’re being attacked. The fact is that there are forces that we can’t see that are attacking us, forces of darkness and evil that are very real and that are stronger than we are. Yet there is still great hope. In the midst of all this uncertainty, in a world of tragedies, there is someone who can protect us from ultimate harm and failure.
Today, we’re continuing our study of the Gospel of Luke. We’re in the middle of chapter 22. It is the night before Jesus will die on the cross, nearly two thousand years ago. Jesus has taken one last Passover meal with his disciples. He has explained what his death will accomplish. He has warned them that one of them will betray him. He has told them not to strive for greatness in the world’s eyes, but to be humble and to serve one another. And now he gives one disciple another warning.
Let’s begin by reading Luke 22:31–34:
31 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” 33 Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.”
Jesus speaks to Peter, the leader of the disciples, calling him by the name “Simon,” which is what he is called when Jesus first invited him and some others to follow him (Luke 5:1–11). Perhaps calling Peter by this name would remind him that Jesus chose him as one of his disciples. Jesus warns Simon Peter that Satan has demanded to “have you.” We can’t see this in English, but in the Greek, the “you” here is plural. It’s a reference not just to Peter, but to all the disciples. Satan wanted to “sift them like wheat,” to separate them from the chaff, to pull them away from Jesus. It’s like Satan, the devil, wanted to shake Jesus’ little group of ragtag followers to see which of them would fall away from Jesus.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw that Satan had managed to sift one of Jesus’ disciples, Judas. Satan decisively influenced Judas to betray Jesus. Now, we find out that Satan has attacked the other eleven disciples, too. Satan is a mysterious and shadowy figure in the Bible. There are few references to him in the Old Testament. From his appearance in the book of Job, we understand that he was a rebellious angel, or at least some kind of otherworldly being who was in heaven. In the book of Job, Satan tries to get a righteous man to renounce God by taking away his wealth, his family, and his health, all with God’s permission. Yet Satan failed in that attack. Satan is also known as being an accuser. In Zechariah 3, in a vision he accuses Joshua, the high priest, pointing out his sin. Yet God rebuked Satan, took away Joshua’s “filthy garments” (representing his sin) and clothed him in “pure vestments” (representing righteousness).
We learn more about Satan in the New Testament. Though we don’t know much about his origins, he’s called “a murderer” and “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We find out that he is the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the “deceiver of the whole world,” and “the accuser” (Rev. 12:9, 11). Satan even tried to tempt Jesus, to get him to abandon his divine mission (Luke 4:1–13).
To summarize what the Bible says about the devil, we can say that he is real, that he is a preternatural or otherworldly force, that he delights to deceive and tempt people so that they turn away from God, that he then accuses those sinners of their sin, and that he tries to thwart God’s plans. But it’s important to know that Satan does not have God’s power and knowledge, and certainly not his wisdom, love, and holiness. And it’s also important to know that Jesus is stronger than Satan, he came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and that Satan will be defeated (Rev. 20:7–20).
Here, in Luke 22, Jesus warns Peter that Satan has attempted to separate him and the ten other disciples. (Satan already managed to separate the twelfth.) But Jesus has protected Peter. He has prayed for him. (Jesus then uses the singular form of “you” to refer specifically to Peter.) Jesus has prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail—at least not in the ultimate sense. That doesn’t mean Peter wouldn’t fail in smaller ways. In fact, he predicts that Peter will deny him.
What’s interesting is that Jesus first says that to Peter that after he has “turned again,” he should strengthen the other disciples. This implies that Peter will fail, not in the ultimate sense that Judas failed, proving himself faithless, but sinning in some significant way. Peter doesn’t seem to think he will do that, because he claims that he is ready to go to prison and to death with Jesus. Peter will eventually go to prison for being a Christian (Acts 12), and according to Christian tradition outside of the Bible, Peter would eventually be martyred in Rome. But those events would come much later. First, Peter will deny even knowing Jesus. We’ll see that in a few weeks.
I want to drop a little footnote here. Some people don’t believe that the Bible is the truth. They don’t believe that the Gospels and the other historical books of the Bible tell what really happened. They assume that people fabricated these stories, or that they’re some kind of myth. One of the reasons to believe they are true is that they report details that you wouldn’t make up if you were creating a story. Peter, along with Paul, is one of the two great leaders of the early church. If you were making up a story about him, you wouldn’t tell a story about his failures. But Peter’s faults are clearly displayed. He and the other disciples sometimes come across as foolish and thick-headed. Other great figures of the Bible, like Noah, Abraham, and David, are presented warts and all. Compare that with Islam. Islam presents Muhammad as a perfect man. The Qur’an tells stories about biblical figures. (Keep in mind that the Qur’an was written hundreds of years after the Bible was completed.) But in the Qur’an, “David does not . . . seduce Uriah’s wife; Lot does not sleep with his daughters” and acts of violence are expunged from the record. If you’re making up a story, you don’t share embarrassing depictions of that story’s heroes. But if you’re telling the truth, you have nothing to hide.
Think about this for a moment. Jesus chose the twelve disciples. He did this after a long night of prayer to God the Father (Luke 6:12–16). This means that Jesus’ choice of these particular twelve men was God’s choice. This was all part of God’s plan. God knew that Judas would betray Jesus. He knew that Peter would deny him. Yet Jesus chose them still. And Jesus knows that Peter will deny him. Yet he tells Peter in advance that he will repent, that he will have a role in strengthening Christians.
What does this have to do with us? If you are a Christian, know that God chose you before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3–14). God didn’t just choose to create us. God chose to adopt us into his family, to save us from our sins and the condemnation that sinners deserve, through the sacrificial death of Jesus. (If you don’t understand what that means, hang on; I will soon explain what Jesus does to save us.) God did this knowing all the sins that we would ever commit. Jesus, in his divinity, knew what Peter would do. Yet Jesus chose him anyway. And Jesus protected Peter from Satan. He interceded for Peter. He prayed for him. He promised Peter that even though he would deny Jesus, which is a serious sin, Peter would still have a role to play as the leader of the disciples.
This is a picture of grace. Jesus gives things to Peter that Peter doesn’t deserve. On his own, Peter would not only deny Jesus, but he would come under Satan’s sway. He would believe lies. He would fail. But not with Jesus in his corner. The same is true of us. If it were not for Jesus, we would be lost. We would believe lies and fall away from God. But nothing can remove us from God and his love for us.
I’ll come back to this idea in a moment. But first let’s read the rest of today’s passage. Here are verses 35–38.
35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”
Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus sent out the twelve disciples on a mission to preach and to heal people (Luke 9:1–6). He told them not to take provisions with them. Later, he sent out a larger group of seventy-two people to preach (Luke 10:1–12). Again, he told them not to take provisions, but to trust that God would provide for them through the kindness of others. Now, Jesus tells them to take provisions. They should bring money and a bag. He also tells them they should have a sword.
At the least, Jesus is telling them that something is changing. Earlier, they were not met with much resistance. They preached and they had success. But now Jesus is warning them that times will be hard. In John’s Gospel, he tells them that the world will hate them because it first hated him (John 15:18–25). “The world” refers to the powers of the world that are opposed to God. The disciples will need to be prepared to face such adversity. Things will not be easy for them.
Still, it’s odd that Jesus tells them to buy a sword. Why does he do this? This command is debated. I have seen some people use this passage to justify carrying weapons, as if Jesus were telling the disciples something about the Second Amendment. I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment in principle, but I think it would be a mistake to justify carrying weapons for self-defense based on this passage. And this is why: Jesus tells them to buy a sword. They tell him they have two swords. Two swords would not be enough to defend twelve men. It won’t be enough to defend them from soldiers. Soon enough, they will come to arrest Jesus. Peter, ever the impetuous disciple, attempts to defend Jesus by swinging his sword at a servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear (Luke 22:50; John 18:10). But Jesus miraculously heals that man’s ear and says, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). We should also notice that in the book of Acts or in the rest of the New Testament, there is no account of the disciples brandishing weapons or defending themselves physically. So, if Jesus is telling them to literally carry swords wherever they go, then they didn’t obey him.
Also, in this passage, when the disciples tell Jesus they have two swords, he says, literally, “It is enough.” That could mean, “That number will suffice.” But it won’t be enough to defend themselves. Jesus could also mean something dismissive. He could have been referring to a sword in a figurative or metaphorical way, warning them about the danger and divisions that will come their way. When they show him their swords, Jesus could be saying, “Enough of that. You obviously don’t understand exactly what I mean.”
Just about every commentator believes that Jesus is referring to a sword in a figurative or metaphorical way. He does do that elsewhere, when he says that he came not to bring peace to the world, but to come with a sword, metaphorically separating his people from those who reject him (Matt. 10:34).
But perhaps he does want his disciples to have literal swords for another reason. Jesus gives us a reason for having swords in verse 37. He says, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” He’s quoting Isaiah 53:12, part of a passage that talks about God’s servant, who will suffer and be crushed for the sins of his people so that they could be healed. In fact, right after that portion of Isaiah 53:12, it says, “he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” We have already seen that Jesus intercedes for sinners, people like Peter. We will soon talk about his bearing the sins of many. But it’s important to see that Jesus is numbered with the transgressors. Perhaps part of the reason why the disciples need to have swords is so that they will appear to the unbelieving Jews and Romans as if they are treasonous. Jesus will be accused of being a threat to the Roman Empire, challenging the rule of Caesar (Luke 23:2; John 19:12). Similar charges will be made against the disciples (Acts 17:6–7).
Whatever the exact meaning of the sword is, it’s important to see that Jesus is regarded as a sinner. That, too, is part of God’s plan. Sin is a turning away from God. It his rejecting him. It’s a failure to love him, trust him, and obey him. It’s really a failure to embrace the purpose for which we were made. God made us to know him, to represent him, to reflect his glory, to love him, obey him, and serve him. But we don’t want that. We want to determine our own purpose in life. Instead of accepting God’s terms for our lives, we want to live life on our own terms. Sin is a great crime, one that deserves punishment. That punishment is just repaying evil. It’s also a form of protection, removing evil from God’s world so that it doesn’t further contaminate his creation. God would be right to remove all of us from his world.
But God is gracious. He has provided us a way to be forgiven. He doesn’t sweep our sin under the rug. No, sin must be punished. God is a perfect judge, one who sees all the evidence and must issue a sentence for the crime, which must be punished. But he takes the punishment that we deserve and puts it on his Son. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And God the Son takes this punishment upon himself willingly. He lays down his life to save his people, all who trust I him.
To see all how Jesus sacrifices himself for his people and how he protects them from Satan, it’s worth looking at another passage of the Gospels. In John 10, Jesus is teaching about his identity and the role he plays in saving his people. He says that he is a good shepherd who protects his people, his sheep. There is a thief who comes to harm the sheep—this must be Satan. But Jesus protects his people from them. Here is what Jesus says in John 10:10–18:
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.
Jesus protects his people and gives them abundant life. He’s not a hired hand who abandons the sheep when things get difficult. No, he risks life and limb to protect them. In fact, he lays down his life for them. There is one flock of God, both Jews and Gentiles, anyone who puts their trust in Jesus. They will listen to his voice, and no one can take them from him.
A few verses later, Jesus reinforces this idea. Look at verses 27–30:
27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.
What does it mean to be a Christian? You follow Jesus. You hear his voice in the pages of the Bible and you follow him. This begins by trusting in Jesus and his ability to save you from sins and the attacks of the enemy. It starts with believing that he is the Son of God, the perfect God-man who lived a righteous life and died an atoning death. But such faith will lead to obedience, even the imperfect obedience of someone like Peter.
But the good news is that if you are a Christian, no one can take you out of God’s hand. Satan can try to deceive you and attack you, but he won’t succeed. Satan could decisively steer away Judas because he didn’t have real faith in Jesus. But Jesus protected Peter, and he protects all his other sheep.
There are other passages in the Bible that express this great truth. In the book of Romans, Paul gives his most systematic account of this good news message of Christianity. He discusses the universal problem of sin and how it brings condemnation, God’s righteous wrath. But he also tells us that God sent his Son to redeem sinners, and that those who trust in Jesus will experience no condemnation.
At the end of Romans 8, Paul writes these powerful words. Here are verses 31–39:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If you are a Christian, you have God on your side. If God is for you, no one can ultimately be against you. If God gave you his own Son, knowing all the sins that you have committed and will ever commit, will he not give you everything you need? He will. If God has covered your sins with the sacrifice of Jesus, can anyone bring charges against you to condemn you? No. Jesus died for your sins and rose from the grave, showing that he paid the penalty in full. And he is now in heaven, interceding for all Christians, pleading his sacrifice to the Father, praying for us.
If you are a Christian, nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing! Though Christians will experience trials and tribulations, distress and persecution, and even death, all of those things can’t separate them from God. Death can’t remove you from God. No emergency or crisis can remove you from God. Your own sin can’t remove you from God. Satan and demons can’t separate you from God and his love for you.
That is, if you’re a Christian. If you are not a Christian, you are not protected from these things. The fact is that you will die, and you will stand before Jesus one day. And if you have rejected him, he will not protect you on that day. He will judge you. He will condemn you. You will be removed from God’s creation and you will experience a literally hellish existence. The only protection from the trials of this life, from all kinds of emotional, psychological, and spiritual distress, from death, and from condemnation, is Jesus. The only protection from all our own failures is him. Turn to him now. If you don’t know who Jesus is and want to know more, I would love to talk to you. If you don’t know what it looks like to hear his voice and follow him, please talk to me.
Christians, this should be a great comfort to you. You may feel like your life is being shaken. You may be reflecting on your own sins. You may feel like you’re coming under attack. You may be overwhelmed by forces that are greater than you. You may be looking at many problems that you can’t solve, broken situations that you can’t fix. When that happens, look to Christ. He is praying for you. He is protecting you. He knows all your sins and yet he still died for you. He loves you and cares for you. And he will preserve your life, all the way to that day when you will receive a resurrected body and live in a perfect world with him forever.
I want to close this message with one more passage of Scripture. It’s a great commentary on this passage, just as it’s a great commentary on the book of Job. Not surprisingly, it’s written by Peter himself. This is 1 Peter 5:6–11:
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Timothy Winter, “Islam and the Problem of Evil,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Problem of Evil, ed. chad Meister and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 234. ↑
God knows all of our sins–past, present, and future. Amazingly, he saves some of us and uses us, even though we are sinners. Those who put their trust in Jesus belong to him, and no one can tear them away from him. That is because he was numbered with the transgressors, regarded as a sinner, so that sinners could go free. Brian Watson preached this message on Luke 21:31-38 on February 2, 2020.
Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.
Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.
It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.
Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?
I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.
Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.
Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.
But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.” You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.” We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?
And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.
But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.” There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer. How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?
And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.
We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.
This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.
If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.
This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.
The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.
Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:
1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.
The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.
The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.
He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.
He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.
Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.
Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”
In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.
This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.
The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:
1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.
If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.
We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:
6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.
Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?
Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.
These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.
We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.
At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.
Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.
And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.
And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.
You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year. You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.
The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.
But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.
But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.
The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.
- https://ergofabulous.org/luther. ↑
- After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41. ↑
- Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2. ↑
- Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian. ↑
- Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny. ↑
- See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke. ↑
The prophet of Isaiah foretold the coming of a special child, a son who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This person would make all deliver his people and bring about righteousness, justice, and peace. Jesus is the fulfilment of these promises. Find out how Jesus is the leader we want and need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 15, 2019.
What’s wrong with the world? A lot of people have opinions about what is wrong with the world. In our highly politicized environment, the quick answer might be, “Republicans,” or “Democrats.” Or, perhaps more specifically, people might say, “Donald Trump,” or “Nancy Pelosi,” depending on their political leanings. Bernie Sanders might say “corporate greed” or refer to the “one percent.” Others might not have a specific person or people group in mind, but they may refer to general problems, perhaps environmental ones like climate change or the amount of plastic in our oceans. Six years ago, Pope Francis said, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.”
What do you say? Perhaps you’re not worried about the whole world. Perhaps the question you would like to answer is, “What’s wrong with my world?” Your answer might be your health, or your spouse’s health, or a problematic relationship, or your boss, or not enough money, or someone or something else.
There’s a story that in the early twentieth century, The Times of London asked some prominent authors that question, “What’s wrong with the world?” As you can imagine, they received various answers. The shortest they receive was from the witty and insightful Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton. His response was:
G. K. Chesterton
Why would he write that? Just to be funny? No, Chesterton answered that way because he realized that the problem in the world wasn’t one outside of him. It wasn’t a matter of pointing the finger at someone else, or some other group of people. He realized that what was wrong with the world was something inside of him, and inside of everyone else, too.
Today, we’re going to talk about what that something is. Last week, we started a teaching series that will run this month. We’re looking at one book of the Bible, the second longest book (according to chapter numbers), a book from the Old Testament called Isaiah, named after one of the greatest prophets of Israel. Isaiah was given a job by God over twenty-seven hundred years ago: to tell the people of Israel to turn back to God, to tell them about punishment that would come upon them and the world because of sin, and to tell them a message of good news. One day, God’s people will be delivered from all that is wrong with the world. There will healing for broken people and a broken world.
We’ll look at various passages from the book of Isaiah today. We’ll begin with Isaiah 5:1–7:
1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry!
This is the story of Israel, but it’s also the story of the world. If you want to know a tip for how to understand the Bible, it’s this: There are three big stories within the Bible. The first one is the story of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating a world out of nothing, and it ends with God restoring that world, creating a new world that is perfect. Within that big story, there’s another story, the story of Israel, which parallels that greater story. God called one old man, Abraham, and he told him that he would bless the whole world through him (Gen. 12:1–3). And that one old man and his old wife, Sarah, miraculously who had a child, who had children, who had children, who became Israel. And they ended up in Egypt, where they grew rapidly in number but became slaves. God rescued them from slavery by sending plagues upon Egypt, the greatest nation of the world at that time. And eventually he brought them into their own land.
In the passage that we just read, God poetically likens that land to a vineyard. He took a fertile ground, cleared out any stones, built a watchtower and a wine vat, and then he planted his vine in it. That’s a way of saying he planted Israel in their own land, a good land. And the language of the vineyard echoes the language of the garden of Eden. In the beginning, God planted the first human beings in a fertile ground.
And what does God expect of his people? He expects them to bear good fruit. He expects them to live in a certain way. He expected them to worship him, to recognize his greatness and reflect that greatness to the world. He expected them to love him, to be thankful to him, and to obey him. He expected them to love because he is love. He expected them to live righteously, to do justice, to love their neighbors as they love themselves. God expected that of the first human beings. He expected that of Israel. And he expects that of us.
But the passage says that God looked for good fruit, for good grapes, and he only found bad fruit, sour, wild grapes. Again, this is a metaphor. The people of Israel were not living the way they should. And just like God evicted Adam and Eve from his garden because they didn’t live according to his terms, God was warning Israel that they would be evicted from their land if they didn’t start living for God. And the reality is that Israel would be removed from their land, at least for a time. And this is our story, too. The reason that we sense problems in our world is that we have been removed from God’s garden, from the paradise that he prepared for us. Humanity has been wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The world, as it is, is not our home. That’s why we don’t feel at home. Whether we realize it or not, what we really long for is to be back home, to be with God in the world as he intended it to be.
You may wonder, “What kind of bad fruit did Israel produce?” What does it look like to live contrary to God’s expectations? Isaiah gives us a picture of that. Let’s go to the first chapter in the book. Here is Isaiah 1:2–4:
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
4 Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
The heart of living against God’s design, the heart of what we call sin, is relational. We were made to have a relationship with God. And God says that the problem with Israel is that though they were his children and he raised them, they rebelled against them. Animals know their master, but Israel didn’t know its own maker. In fact, God says that they despised him! Their failure to love God, to acknowledge God as Creator and King, led them to “deal corruptly.”
Yet the Israelites thought that they could ignore God, fail to live for him, and then occasionally go through the religious motions, “worshiping” him. But God says that such worship is no worship at all. Look at Isaiah 1:12–17:
12 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?|
13 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
Israel tried to do their religious business as usual, bringing their offerings to God, observing their festivals, praying to God. But God says that he hates their festivals and though they pray to him, he will not listen. Their hands are full of blood! Why? It seems that they were doing evil instead of good. They were oppressing people who were vulnerable. Israel had laws in place to care for orphans and widows, and apparently the people were not obeying those laws. There’s a famous verse, Isaiah 29:13, where God says,
. . . this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.
God doesn’t want mere lip service. God wants our hearts. And if we love him, we will obey him.
Now look at verses 21–23:
21 How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,|
but now murderers.
22 Your silver has become dross,|
your best wine mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them.
That’s some tough talk. Why is Israel called a whore? Because she hasn’t been faithful to God. The relationship between God and his people is likened to a marriage. God’s people are supposed to love God and be faithful to him. That means that they shouldn’t worship other gods. When they failed to acknowledge who God truly is, when they failed to make him the most important thing in their lives, the object of their worship, the one who determines how they live, then they were cheating on God. They did not do justice. Their leaders were corrupt, bought and sold, being bribed. Instead of observing the laws about the orphan and they widow, they oppressed those vulnerable people. Later, God, will say that the leaders “devoured the vineyard” (Isa. 3:14) and “crush[ed] my people, by grinding the face of the poor” (Isa. 3:15).
In chapter 5 of Isaiah, after that passage about the vineyard that we read earlier, we’re told that people “join[ed] house to house” and “field to field,” probably by taking properties away from the poor (Isa. 5:8). Israel had laws that required debt forgiveness at various times, and those laws were probably ignored. People rose “early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink” (Isa. 5:11). The Bible doesn’t prohibit drinking alcohol, but it does prohibit getting drunk, which causes someone to lose control. That chapter also features these words, in found in Isaiah 5:20–23:
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!
What was true then is true now: we often mistake what is good for evil, and what is evil for good. Our standard of what is good and evil should be God. Our knowledge of what is good and evil is often found in our conscience, but we can’t rely on our own moral compasses, because they are often not working correctly. Our knowledge of good and evil should come from the Bible, but we often ignore it. We think we know better than God.
That kind of ignoring of God, and thinking that we know better than God, is rebellion against him. Isaiah 29:16 says,
You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?
God has made us. We are the clay, and he is the potter. But our tendency is to get things backwards. We make God in our image, and we reject the true God. We don’t trust that he is wiser than we are.
But God issues this warning to his “clay.” This is Isaiah 45:9–10:
9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’ ”
There’s much more that can be said about our sin again God, and our rebellion against him. But this talk of clay and the potter leads to something else that’s at the heart of sin. Earlier, I said that the heart of sin is a relational problem. We don’t love and honor God as we should. Because of that, we don’t pay attention to him and we don’t obey him—certainly not as we should. And all of that leads to something else that’s at the heart of our sin, our rebellion against God. And that is idolatry.
Idolatry is making something other than God, something that is created, not the Creator, something finite, not infinite, something that had a beginning, not something eternal, and making that thing the center of our lives. An idol is a false god. It’s whatever we love the most. It’s what we trust will make us happy, complete, whole. It’s what we think will give us comfort and security. We don’t have to think of it as an object of worship. We probably don’t think of it as a god. But whatever is at the center of our lives is our god. We were made to worship. We inherently religious. And if we fail to worship the true God, someone or something else will fill that void.
Isaiah has one of the classic passages about idolatry. Turn to Isaiah 44:9–20:
9 All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. 10 Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? 11 Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.
12 The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. 13 The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. 14 He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!”
18 They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, “Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?” 20 He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
This passage points out the foolishness of idolatry. It imagines something fashioning a piece of wood into some kind of statue or figure of a false god. Half of the food is used for fuel, for warmth and to bake bread. And then they take the other half and make a god to worship, saying “deliver me” to it. This is what idolatry is like.
Now, many people today would conclude that people in the ancient world were just foolish. How stupid can you be to worship something like that? But we’re not really different.
Years ago, I saw a video clip of a comedian on one of the late-night talk shows, and he was saying we have the greatest technology ever, and it’s wasted on the worst generation ever. He said that we’re always complaining about our phones. If you have a smart phone, you have one of the most amazing pieces of technology ever, a little computer, camera, and phone that can do what previous generations never thought possible. And what’s it made out of? Plastic, glass, some bits of metal. When the phone works, you can be become glued to it. We put our faith in technology to make our lives better, to deliver us. But what if it stops working? Then it’s just a bit of trash. The thing we’ll pay hundreds of dollars for now will be useless later.
That’s sort of what Isaiah is getting at here. It’s foolish to make something that will later be junk the center of your life, because the reality is it’s not a smart phone. It’s dumb. It has no personality, no will. It didn’t design and make itself. It didn’t create the world and it can’t remake it. It can’t save you. It can’t deliver you from your greatest problem, which is, in the words of Isaiah, “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isa. 59:2).
We make idols because we can control them. We are their potter, and they are our clay. We don’t want to come under God’s authority. We want to be gods. Idols make demands on us, but we somehow think those demands are not as hard as God’s. Instead of realizing that God’s yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30), we think there’s an easier way, a better way. But it’s not better. God allows us to go after those idols, but they don’t lead to salvation. They lead to death.
All of that is bad news. Yes, there is a problem in the world, and that problem isn’t just outside of us, it’s in us. We’re part of the problem. So, how do we fix it?
Part of the problem is that we can’t fix the problem. Isaiah 64:5–6 says,
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned;
in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
We can’t save ourselves. We are unclean, tainted by the power of sin, by the folly of idolatry. Even our best acts, the ones we consider righteous, are polluted by sin. We do good things often for selfish reasons, not to honor God. So, if we can’t fix the problem, who can?
The good news is that God can, and, if we turn to God, he will. Earlier, we read some verses from the first chapter of Isaiah. I intentionally left out a few. Here is what Isaiah 1:18–20 says:
18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God promised Israel that he would make them clean. He would make them “white as snow,” “like wool.” He would remove their sins. But they had to be willing. They had to repent. This salvation is offered freely. It’s a gift that must be received in faith.
Isaiah 55:1–7 says,
1 “Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you.
6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Isaiah says, “Come and eat, come and drink. You don’t need money! Do this and live. Seek God while he can he found. If you do this, forsaking your wicked ways, God will have compassion on you. He will forgive your sins.”
How does God cleanse unclean people from their sin? Why does he forgive them? How is it that this offer is free, without price?
The answer is Jesus. I’ll say much more about him over the next two weeks. We’ll hear that he is the promised child who would be born, the Son who is also God (Isa. 9:6–7). As the Son of God, Jesus has always existed, but over two thousand years ago, he became a human being. This is the miracle of Christmas: God became man (without ceasing to be God). The third story of the Bible, the one that fulfills those other stories, is about Jesus. Jesus became a man so that he could fulfill God’s plans for humanity. He does what we should do but don’t. He always loved, honored, and worshiped God the Father. He had no idols. He wasn’t polluted by sin. Yet though he was perfect, he was treated like a criminal, like the worst of rebels. He died on a cross, an instrument of shame, torture, and death. This wasn’t an accident. It was God’s plan to punish sin. Jesus takes the punishment that we all deserve. He takes the death penalty for sin away from all who seek him, who turn to him in faith, who are willing to put away their idols and their wicked ways and follow him. This is all a gift. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first or earn this from God. We simply have to receive it in faith, trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done everything needed to put us back into a right relationship with God.
I’ll say more about him over the next two weeks. And I’ll say more about God’s plans to restore the world at the end of the month. But I do want to say now that Isaiah foresaw a day when people would cast away their idols. After Isaiah called Israel “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isa. 30:9), he said,
Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you,
and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.
For the Lord is a God of justice;
blessed are all those who wait for him (Isa. 30:18).
And he says to those who come to God, “Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” (Isa. 30:22).
Isaiah also told of a day when the world would become a garden again, when the “wilderness becomes a fruitful field” (Isa. 32:15). He predicted that a new creation would come, where God’s people “shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa. 65:21). He predicted that God’s people would go back home, to be with God in a perfect world.
The only way back to God and that world is Jesus. I urge us all to trust in him, to know more about him, to know more about the Bible, which is his word. You can do that by reading all of Isaiah for yourself. This sermon and the other sermons in this series will be on our website, at wbcommunity.org/isaiah. You can find links to some great videos about the book, made by The Bible Project. All of us can know about the one true God. The clay can truly know its potter. The question is whether or not we are willing. As far as it is within your power, seek God while he can be found.
- Eugenio Scalfari, “The Pope: How the Church Will Change,” Repubblica, October 1, 2013, https://www.repubblica.it/cultura/2013/10/01/news/pope_s_conversation_with_scalfari_english-67643118/?refresh_ce. ↑
- Marva J. Dawn, “Not What, but Who Is the Matter with Preaching?” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 75. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.
Let’s imagine something for a moment. Imagine you have a job. For some of you, this isn’t all that hard to do. Imagine that your company was recently purchased by a new owner, who has brought in new management. The new management announces that they are going to interview everyone who works for the company. They present this as a “getting-to-know-you” exercise. They schedule interviews with every single employee, including you. At beginning of your interview, they ask you simple questions about you, such as what your role in the company is, how long you’ve worked there, where you went to school, what other kinds of experience you have—that sort of thing. Then they ask you what you do at the company. As they start to ask more specific questions, it dawns on you that they’re not just trying to get to know you. They’re trying to see if they want to continue to employ you. In short, they’re asking you to justify your position with the company. So, you start to give answers that you would give when you interview for a job. You tell them how you work hard, how much experience you have doing your job, how productive you are, how well you get along with your coworkers, and anything else you can think of to convince them that they should keep you on the payroll.
That’s a bit of what “justification” looks like. It means something like an acquittal. Being justified means being viewed as not guilty, as innocent, as in the right, as acceptable. Justification is a big word in Christianity, and we don’t always hear about it in other contexts. But the fact is that we all try to justify ourselves in some way or another. We try to demonstrate that we’re in the right, that we’re good people, that we have the right beliefs and the right behaviors, that we’re people who should be accepted and embraced.
The key question that we all should ask is, How can I be acceptable to God? What sort of justification can I offer to him? We should think along those lines, but there are many people who don’t even realize that we need to be justified in the presence of God. But we do need justification. We need something that makes up for our sin, that reconciles us to God, that shows that we’re acceptable to him, that we’re worthy. What are you relying upon for justification?
Today, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Luke, we’re going to see a famous parable that Jesus tells, a story about two people who come to the temple to pray to God. These two people have very different attitudes, and they make two very different speeches. Jesus tells us that only one of them is justified.
Let’s now read today’s passage, Luke 18:9–14:
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke tells us up front why Jesus tells this story: Jesus has in mind people “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” That kind of mindset is opposed to the way of Jesus for two reasons. One, Jesus repeatedly says in different ways that no one is righteous. So, to believe that one is righteous, without sin, not in need of mercy, is to be deceived. Two, those who treat others with contempt fail to see that other people are made in God’s image and likeness. We have no right to act as if we are superior to others, particularly if we realize our own unrighteousness. Jesus probably is addressing this story to the Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who were known for their strict adherence to the Hebrew Bible.
The story itself has a setting and two characters. The setting is the temple in Jerusalem. This is where God was worshiped, where sacrifices for sin were offered, and where people prayed. We don’t know if this was one of the twice-daily times of prayer at the temple (at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.) or if the men just happened to go to the temple at the same time to pray individually. The point is that both were going to meet with God.
Then, we are told about the two characters of the story. The first is a Pharisee. There were a few groups of Jewish religious leaders at this time. There was the high priest, as well as the many priests who served at the temple. Then there were two groups of influential Jews. One was the Sadducees, who had more political power but who had unorthodox beliefs. Famously, they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. The other group was the Pharisees, who were lay leaders known for taking the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, very seriously. They were very disciplined in their approach. They tried to apply the whole Bible to all of life in very specific, rigorous ways. The apostle Paul, before becoming a Christian, was a Pharisee, and he had previously boasted of his adherence to the law (Phil. 3:4–6).
But Jesus has criticized the Pharisees repeatedly for being hypocrites, for not seeing their own lack of righteousness, and for using their positions of privilege to earn money. In short, the Pharisees don’t come out looking good in this Gospel.
The Pharisees have grumbled that Jesus would spend time eating and drinking with obviously sinful people. In Luke 5:30–32, we read this:
30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus came to save people from their sin. Sin is a sickness, a rebellion against God but also a powerful, evil force that finds its way into everything we do. The only people who go to a doctor for healing are those who are willing to admit they are sick and need help. The Pharisees still wrestled with sin, but they had lost sight of that fact. They acted as if they were truly righteous and everyone else was not.
We’re told that this Pharisee stood by himself when he prayed. We don’t want to read much into that. There are times when people stand while praying in the Bible (1 Sam. 1:26; 1 Kgs. 8:22). But perhaps he was by himself because he thought he was above everyone else.
At any rate, we are given his prayer. It consists of twenty-eight words in the original Greek. He begins well: “God, I thank you.” It’s good to begin prayers by thanking God. But look what he thanks God for: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” He’s basically praying, “God, I thank you that you made me so great. When you made me, you did an excellent job. I’m not like those other sinners. I’m nailing it when it comes to all the religious things.”
The Pharisee thanks God for not making him like sinners. He even is so bold as to point out the tax collector, the other character in this story. “I thank you that I’m not like that poor slob over there.” Tax collectors had a bad reputation for two reasons: one, they often took more than they needed to take. In an era before computers or advanced paperwork, it was easy to tell people they owed more than they actually did. But, perhaps more importantly, tax collectors worked for the Roman Empire. They were Jewish people working for the enemy, the superpower of the day, the occupying force that oppressed Jews. Tax collectors were not only dishonest, but they were traitors. That’s what this Pharisee surely thought.
What the Pharisee is doing is comparing himself to other people. As he thinks about other people, he is evaluating his own moral performance against theirs. By that standard, the Pharisee comes out well. He’s thinking, “I’m not as sinful as them.” He also boasts about his good deeds. He fasted twice a week. Fasting might mean consuming only water and bread (Shepherd of Hermas 5.3.7). The Jews were only commanded to fast on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29; Num. 29:7). They might also fast when mourning or repenting. Pharisees were known to fast on Mondays and Thursdays. They went above and beyond what the law required.
The Pharisee also claims to tithe everything he gets. Israel was supposed to over various tithes of their produce (Num. 18:21–24; Deut. 14:22–27). A tithe literally means a tenth, though if you added Israel’s tithes, they were supposed to give something like 23.3 percent of their crops. Perhaps the Pharisee is saying that he tithes all his income, or perhaps he means that for everything he spends—for all the stuff that he “gets”—he gives ten percent away. At any rate, he’s bragging about how much he gives to the temple.
Though the Pharisee begins by praying to God, the “prayer” is really all about him. He’s the subject: I thank you, I’m not like other men, I fast twice a week, I tithe everything. I, me, mine.
The other character in this story is the tax collector. I’ve already explained their reputation. It was not good. The Pharisees complained that Jesus ate with such sinners (Luke 5:30) and would spend time with them (Luke 15:1–2). Yet this tax collector humbly makes his way to the temple. Given their reputation, it’s not unreasonable to think that tax collectors didn’t go to the temple often, perhaps because they wouldn’t want to go, perhaps because they knew how they would be viewed by others.
Like the Pharisee, the tax collector stands. But he stands at a distance. The Pharisee might have gone right into the courtyard of the temple. This tax collector was standing “far off,” perhaps on just the edge of the temple complex. Though some people prayed while looking up to God (Ps. 123:1; Mark 6:41; 7:34; John 11:41; 17:1), this tax collector can’t do that. He feels unworthy to look directly toward God. He beats his breast, a sign of mourning. And he simply says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” In the original Greek, his prayer is only six words (compared with the twenty-eight words of the Pharisee).
Now, I don’t often play the “in the Greek . . .” card, but I will here, because it’s important. The way that the tax collector’s prayer is translated hides a couple of important details. First, he literally says, “God, make atonement for me.” He knows he needs God’s mercy. But the way to get mercy from God is if atonement is made. The Greek word used here is also used in Hebrews 2:17, where we’re told that Jesus made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” To be right in God’s eyes, to be acceptable to God, to be forgiven by him, he needs someone who can make God propitious towards him. In other words, he needs someone who can make God look favorably upon him. This man knows that he has nothing to bring to God that can turn away God’s judgment against his sin. He confesses that he’s a sinner. He doesn’t brag about who he is or what he’s done. He simply knows that he needs atonement for his sin, and he knows that God must be the one to atone for his sin. No amount of good works can make up for the sin that he’s committed.
The other interesting detail that is found in the original Greek text is that this man says, “God, make atonement for me, the sinner.” He doesn’t say “a sinner.” Instead, he says, “the sinner,” using the definite article. Why does that matter? It’s like he’s saying, “I’m not comparing myself to other people. I’m not saying that I’m just another sinner, like everyone else around me. I am the sinner who needs atonement for his sins.” The Pharisee compared himself to others and did so favorably: “I’m better than everyone else.” But this tax collector isn’t comparing. He’s not judging himself by that standard. Instead, he’s judging himself against God’s standard. It’s like when the apostle Paul called himself “the foremost” sinner (1 Tim. 1:15).
These two men couldn’t be any more different in their stature in society and in their attitudes. Yet in verse 14, Jesus provides the twist: the tax collector and not the Pharisee went back home justified. The tax collector found favor in God’s eyes. The Pharisee did not. Jesus gives the reason why: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is like so many of the twists that we see in Jesus’ parables: the Samaritan, not the priest or the Levite, was the one who loved his neighbor (Luke 10:25–37); the younger sinful brother came back home and was embraced by his father while the older righteous brother stayed outside (Luke 15:11–32); the rich men went to hades while the poor men went to paradise (Luke 16:19–31).
There are three truths that I want us to see from this parable. The first truth concerns the attitude we should take in approaching God. The tax collector had it right. He humbly approaches God and seeks forgiveness that only God can give. He seeks a solution to his sin that he cannot possibly provide, but that God can. He acknowledges he’s a sinner. He doesn’t compare himself to anyone else. He knows that he stands in need of God’s mercy.
The Pharisee isn’t really praying to God at all. His prayer is really a boast. He compares himself with others and, since he’s relatively obedient to the law, he thinks he’s superior to others. He looks down at “this one,” this tax collector. He brags about all the good things he has done. There’s no awareness that he, too, is a sinner standing in need of atonement. He is justifying himself, assuming that all his good works have put him in the right before God.
The right attitude before God is captured in King David’s famous confession of sin, which we find in Psalm 51. King David had committed adultery, then when he found out the woman was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin by arranging for her husband to sleep with her. When that didn’t work out, he had the husband killed. (See 2 Samuel 11 for the story). When the prophet Nathan called him out for his sin, David confessed that he had done what was wrong, and he asked God for forgiveness (2 Sam. 12:1–13). Look at Psalm 51:1–4:
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
David knew that he had ultimately sinned against God, and that he needed God’s mercy. God would be justified in condemning David, but David appealed to God for mercy. He confessed his sin and he found healing and forgiveness.
Later in the same Psalm, David says (in verse 17):
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
He knew that what God wanted was a sign of repentance, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, a godly remorse over sin. God doesn’t want pride and boasting. He wants people to realize what they have done, and to come to him humbly and in faith.
That is the attitude a sinful person should have before God. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. We have all failed to love God as we should. We have failed to obey his commandments. We have failed to love other people as we should. We have even failed our own moral standards and moral codes. We have done wrong, and God knows it. He would be justified to condemn us. We must seek the atonement that only he gives.
Of course, not everyone realizes this. Just this past week, I happened to catch a bit of a video clip from an interview between Ben Shapiro and Bishop Robert Barron. If you don’t know who Ben Shapiro is, he’s a relatively young man who is a significant conservative figure. He’s a lawyer, an author, a writer, and a host of a very popular podcast. He’s made appearances on CNN and other television channels. He’s also an Orthodox Jew. So, he had this interview with a Catholic bishop, and at one point, Shapiro asks this question: “What’s the Catholic view on who gets into heaven and who doesn’t?” Then, he immediately adds, “I feel like I lead a pretty good life, a very religiously based life in which I try to keep not just the Ten Commandments, but a solid 603 other commandments as well. And I spend an awful lot of my time promulgating what I would consider to be Judeo-Christian virtues, particularly in Western societies. So, what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?”
I like Ben Shapiro. I agree with many things that he says. But what he’s doing there is very similar to what the Pharisee does in the parable. He’s claiming that he lives a good life. Actually, Shapiro hedges that a bit to say he lives “a pretty good life.” He claims that he tries to keep the 613 commandments of the Old Testament. (I’m not sure how he keeps all the commandments related to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem and offering animal sacrifices.) But I doubt that he does well even with the Ten Commandments. Who has not coveted (Exod. 20:17)? Who hasn’t put something before God in their lives (Exod. 20:3)? Who has always loved God with all one’s heart, soul, and might (Deut. 6:5)? Who has always loved one’s neighbor as one’s self (Lev. 19:18)? Shapiro doesn’t seem to think he has sins that he can’t make up for.
The Bishop says that Shapiro is not “screwed.” He says that the Catholic Church has taught since Vatican II that people other than Christians can be saved if they follow their conscience. Jesus is the privileged path to salvation, and he must be followed, but the Bishop waters down what that means. He says that the atheist who follows his conscience is actually following Christ, though he doesn’t know it.
Then, Shapiro asks the Bishop if Catholicism is faith-based or acts-based. Shapiro acknowledges that Judaism is an acts-based religious, “where it’s all about what you do in this life, and that earns you points in heaven.” The Bishop says that Catholicism is “loved-based,” which is a nice answer. He does say that Catholicism requires faith, but it is perfected by works. He rightly acknowledges that a relationship with God begins with grace, and that it requires a response that includes obedience, but he suggests that human effort contributes to salvation.
Those are two wrong ways of looking at salvation. This leads me to what Jesus didn’t teach clearly in this parable, and this is the second truth that we should know this morning. How is one saved? What is the basis of salvation? If it’s true what the Bible says, that all of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and that even our best acts of righteousness are tainted by sin (Isa. 64:6), how can we be saved? The parable makes it clear that we must go to God humbly and ask for mercy. But how does that work?
God is a righteous judge who must punish sin. He promised punishment and exile for sinners. How can God punish sin without destroying all sinners?
God also desires righteous members of his covenant. He demands a righteous people. How can we be declared in the right, innocent, as if we had never sinned but had only done what he wants us to do?
The answer is Jesus. He is the only truly righteous person who has ever walked the face of the earth. He is the God-man, forever the Son of God, yet who added a human nature over two thousand years ago. He alone loved God the Father (and God the Spirit) with his whole being. He alone has never failed to love his neighbor. He alone has obeyed all the commandments.
Yet Jesus died a sinner’s death, bearing the wrath of God when he died on the cross. He was treated like the worst of criminals though he never did anything wrong. He then rose from the grave on the third day, to show that he paid the penalty for sin in full and to demonstrate that all his people will rise from the grave on day when he comes again in glory. If we trust in him, our sins have already been punished. The apostle wrote to the Colossians that “you, who were dead in your trespasses . . . God has made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–15). If we have faith in Jesus, if we trust that he is who the Bible says he is and he has done what the Bible says he has done, our sin is paid for, and we are credited with his righteousness.
This can only be accessed by faith, not works. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 2:15–16).
Paul makes this abundantly clear in Romans, as well as in Galatians and Philippians and his other letters. In Ephesians, he famously writes,
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:8–9).
Paul also says that we should do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10), but those good works are not the basis for our salvation. They are not the root of our salvation, but the fruit that naturally comes out of life changed by Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
If we have a right relationship with Jesus, one marked by trust, love, and obedience, we will know who he is. We might not know everything, but we do need to know some things. Importantly, we will know that he is God. In John 8:24, Jesus told the Jewish religious leaders of his day, “I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). “I am he” is a reference to the God of the Old Testament. It is how God referred to himself when he first spoke to Moses (Exod. 3:14). It is how God refers to himself in the book of Isaiah (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4).
The Bible pictures salvation as being united to Jesus. The Bible also says that Jesus is our bride. If you are married to someone you will know it, and you will know important things about your spouse. So, if you’re married to Jesus, you’ll know that he’s the Son of God, the world’s only Savior, and the King of kings and Lord of lords. You’ll know that he died on the cross for your sins and that he rose from the grave.
The third truth I want us to think about is that we will stand before God on judgment day. We will have to give an account for what we have done. I don’t know the mechanics of how this will work out. I don’t know that we’ll be given a chance to speak to God and present a case for our justification. But let’s say we will. What will you say to God? Will you say, “God, I deserve to be with you for eternity because I’ve done all these good things. I’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show you all the good things that I’ve done.” Or will you humbly say something like this? “God, I know that you would be right to condemn me. I know that I have failed to love you and to obey you. Have mercy on me, the sinner. Please forgive me. My only hope is your Son, Jesus. I trust that his righteousness and his atonement are enough to save me from sin. My faith is set upon Christ. He is my only hope for salvation.” If that is the posture of your heart, you have faith in Jesus. The good news is that he can save us from any sin we’ve committed. We can be acceptable to God because of Jesus. But we must first acknowledge our sin and humbly seek forgiveness. We must repent, turning away from sin, and turn to our only hope, who is Christ.
Christians, we must not look down at other people as though we were better than them, or more deserving of God’s grace. We must not say, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Democrat,” or, “God, I thank you that I’m not a Republican.” We can’t even say, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee.” We must not boast in ourselves, but we must boast in Christ. Paul wrote, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; quoting Jer. 9:24). He then wrote, “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- The interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oDt8wWQsiA&feature=youtu.be. The relevant portion of the interview begins at about 16:20. ↑
In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus commends a man who gave thanks for healing him. Our problem is that we’re not thankful to God. What Jesus has done for us is a great reason to thank God. Brian Watson preached this message on August 18, 2019.
I saw an interesting video clip this week. It was of some moments from the national convention held by the Democratic Socialists of America. The video clip was edited to show a few of the more, well, interesting moments of their meeting in Atlanta. At the meeting, a man in attendance raised his hand, was acknowledged by the moderator, and then approached an open microphone to address the crowd. He began, “Uh, guys, first of all, James Jackson, Sacramento, he/him. I just want to say, can we please keep the chatter to a minimum. I’m one of the people who’s very prone to sensory overload. There’s a lot of whispering and chatter going on. It’s making it very difficult for me to focus. . . . Can we please just keep the chatter to a minimum? It’s affecting my ability to focus. Thank you.” Right when James said, “Guys,” a man in a red dress started to get agitated. He got up to the microphone next and said, with no little amount of passion, “Please do not use gendered language to address everyone.” He obviously was offended that the previous speaker would address everyone as a “guy.” The next scene in this clip was once again of James Jackson, who addressed the crowd a second time, with quite a bit of annoyance audible in the tone of his voice. “I have already asked people to be mindful of the chatter of their comrades who are sensitive to sensory overload, and that goes double for the heckling and hissing. It is also triggering to my anxiety. . . . Your need to express yourself is important but your need to express yourself should not trump . . .” That moment got cut off, but he was apparently trying to say that the need for someone people to make noise shouldn’t trump his need not to hear such noises, which were triggering his anxiety.
The next moment in the video clip featured a speaker from the podium, who encouraged people not to clap but to raise their ends and wiggle their fingers. Because, you know, all that noise was triggering the people who have sensory overload. This leader acknowledged that there were many “disabled comrades” at the convention, and that many of these comrades had “invisible” disabilities, which make it hard for them to “navigate” the space they were in. For example, those people given to sensory overload. To accommodate such disabled comrades, this speaker let the audience know that there were quiet rooms available. He also urged people not to go into those spaces with “anything that’s like an aggressive scent.” After all, he said, “we don’t want to put people in stressful situations that they don’t consent to.”
Now, it would be easy to laugh at these people and call them crazy. Yet I think that video clip reflects something very serious in our society. It seems that the worst thing we can imagine is that we would be offended. Apparently, that is one of the worst crimes—to offend someone without their consent. (I’m not sure how you could offend someone consensually, but perhaps that’s what we pay comedians to do.) Heaven forbid that we be offended.
It also seems that the greatest thing that we could achieve is to realize our dreams, whatever those may be. The greatest thing, it seems, is to satisfy our emotions and desires. Another great good is getting everyone else to accommodate our wishes, to have everyone affirm our project of self-actualization. If I have certain desires, you must affirm them as good and right for me to have, and to act upon. If I want to quit my job and leave my family, who are you to tell me that’s wrong? No, you should cheer me on and tell me to follow my dream.
Yet Jesus says things that contradict the idols of our age. He says that the greatest crime is not to be offended, but rather to offend. The greatest crime is to offend God, to rebel against him, to disregard him, to disobey his commands. And the greatest achievement is not to fulfill our dreams and have everyone else cheer us on as we pursue them. No, the greatest thing is to serve the King of kings, God himself.
We’ve been studying the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Today, we see another passage that features the teachings of Jesus. He warns his followers about sin and tempting others to sin. They, realizing that the Christian life is difficult, ask Jesus to increase their faith. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, I’ll do that very thing. I’ll give you more faith.” No, he tells them that even a little faith can do great things. But he warns them that they shouldn’t do great things for themselves, or to manipulate God. They should serve God because it is their duty; it is what God expects of all of us.
Today, we’re going to read Luke 17:1–10. We’ll read it in three parts. I’ll start with the first four verses.
1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Here, Jesus warns against tempting others to sin. Why? Because sin a most dangerous, toxic thing. Imagine warning people at a convention not to offend others. Now, amplify that by the order of a million. That’s the danger of sin. Sin is truly the root of all evil. It’s that evil power that’s inside of us, that causes us to do what is wrong. One not-so-orthodox Christian author has called it the “human propensity to f*** things up.” This author writes this about sin: “It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”
Now, you may think, “What’s the big deal? So what? We all screw things up? Who hasn’t?” Well, the reason why this is all a big deal is because the “things” that we foul up are not our own. They are God’s. God is the very center of the universe. He is the goal of the universe. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, and all things are made through him, to him, and for him. So, he has made everything, and therefore everything belongs to him. And that includes human beings. Our propensity to foul things up doesn’t end up in just scratches to cars, cabinets, and computers. We have a tendency to hurt each other. But what is most offensive to God about all of this is that our sin is rebellion against him. We ignore that he is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We ignore that everything was made by him and for him. We ignore the fact that he is perfectly good, wise, and powerful. We think we can do without him, at least on our good days. Sin is a failure to acknowledge God as God. It’s an attempt to de-god God, usually to put ourselves on his throne.
Sin is corrosive, toxic, and destructive. It’s like a cancer that metastasizes until the whole organism is diseased and beyond hope. Don’t believe me? Look at the news. See stories of mass shootings and sexual abuse. Look at a divided nation, full of people who spew hate and are selfish. Of course, sin isn’t always spectacular. It often takes the more mundane form of thinking solely of oneself, of breaking promises and failing to live up to our own moral codes. Sin can take the subtle form of a bad thought or an impure desire. We don’t have to look farther than the mirror or our own souls to know that sin is real. G. K. Chesterton wrote, over a century ago, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”
Sin is so serious that Jesus says three important things about it here. One, he says that in this fallen world full of sin, temptations to sin are inevitable. Until the day when Jesus comes to Earth a second time to bring human history as we know it to an end, there will be sin, and there will be temptations to sin. But that doesn’t mean we should just give in and sin with abandon. So, two, Jesus says that those who tempt others to sin are cursed. It would be better to have a millstone, a giant stone used to grind grain, tied to oneself and then be thrown into the sea than to cause others to sin. Jesus refers to Christians as “little ones.” In other Gospels, it seems he says something like this when referring to children, but here it seems he’s referring more broadly to Christians. At any rate, he’s saying there are worse things than death. Leading others to sin is likely to incur condemnation.
The third thing Jesus says about sin is that we should keep an eye on ourselves and also on our brothers and sisters. Not tempting others to sin isn’t enough. We need to avoid sin ourselves and if we see others sinning, we should warn them and even rebuke them. And if they turn from sinning and seek forgiveness, we must forgive them. The true mark of a Christian is repentance—turning away from sin and back to God—and seeking and giving forgiveness when repentance is present.
The seriousness of sin is at the heart of Christianity and it’s at the heart of the Bible. Just read through any section of the Old Testament and that becomes clear. Read any one of the Gospels, and you can see that. This message must have struck the disciples as quite serious, because when they hear it, they ask Jesus for help. Let’s look at the next couple of verses, verses 5 and 6:
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
The disciples hear what Jesus has to say about the seriousness of sin, and they must be thinking, “We can’t do this without your help. Increase our faith!” That sounds like a good request. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve prayed something like that in the past. But what’s surprising is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Sure, I’ll do that. Thanks for asking.” Jesus’ response is something we wouldn’t expect. He doesn’t say that they need more faith. Instead, he says that if they had even a small amount of faith, say, the size of a tiny bit of mustard seed, the kind that might be produced by the grinding of a millstone, they would be able to command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Now, I don’t think anyone would want to plant a tree in the sea, but what’s impressive about that feat is the uprooting of a mulberry tree. The black mulberry tree has a very deep and complex root system, one that allows the tree to live up to six hundred years. So, the idea of uprooting it entirely through a command seems impossible.
The idea of planting it into the sea is strange. I wonder if Jesus has something from the Old Testament in mind. At the end of Micah, there’s a beautiful passage about God’s mercy, grace, and love. This is Micah 7:18–19:
18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
19 He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
If we turn from our sin to Jesus and seek forgiveness, he will uproot our sin—which, like that mulberry tree, is something we couldn’t dig up—and cast our seas into the sea. Even a little bit of real faith in Jesus will move our sins into the sea. I don’t think Jesus means that if we have faith, we’ll have all kinds of superpowers. A careful reading of the Bible never leads to that idea. Jesus’ point is not that we’ll be superheroes if we have faith. His point is that God does amazing things with a little faith. And, truly, to be forgiven of sin is an amazing thing. So is avoiding sin and helping others to turn from sin back to God.
Perhaps Jesus anticipated that the disciples might take this bit of teaching the wrong way. They might have thought, “Well, we have more than a little faith, so we must be able to do great things!” And the disciples do great things in time. If you read the book of Acts, you see that some of them performed miracles. But Jesus wants them to know that we don’t do great things to make ourselves great, or to manipulate God to do our bidding, or to put God in our debt. No, we do things for God because it is our duty. We see that in the next few verses, which form a short parable. Let’s read verses 7–10:
7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Jesus is picturing a situation in which there is a master who has a servant, really a slave. In ancient Judaism, Jewish people sometimes sold themselves into slavery when they couldn’t pay a debt. They became indentured servants—servants who were to be treated well and who could be freed in time. Still, they were servants. Jesus asks his disciples to imagine that they are masters. If they have a servant who does outside work, such as plowing and keeping sheep, when that servant comes inside, does the master serve the servant? No. Instead, the servant keeps on serving the master. Jesus asks the disciples, “Does the master thank the servant because he did what was commanded?” No. The servant was doing his job. It’s like what Bill Belichick told the Patriots: “Do your job.”
Jesus then flips the script. He had told the parable from the perspective of the master. But now Jesus tells his disciples that they aren’t masters. No, they are the servants. He says, “When you’ve done your job, don’t look for rewards. Don’t think God owes you anything. No, just humbly tell God, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to get big heads. He doesn’t want Christians to be like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9–14, the one who goes to the temple and, while praying, basically brags about all the good works he does. No, Christians have work to do, and they should do their jobs without expecting much in return.
The reason why that is so is because Christians have already been given their reward. If you become a Christian, you have already received so much: forgiveness of sins, adoption into God’s family, a place in the body of Christ, the great gift of the Holy Spirit, who dwells within you, and the promise of eternal life. If you’re a Christian, you have already received a priceless gift, a treasure that cannot possibly be valued. But God doesn’t save us so we can sit around doing nothing. He has planned good works for us to do in advance.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, tells us that Christians receive a right standing with God as a gift. Salvation—including our faith—is a gift from God. That means that we can’t possibly boast about any of it. We can’t say to God, “Look how much I’ve done. Now you owe me.” We have nothing to boast about. But Paul also says that we have work to do. This is what he writes in Ephesians 2:8–10:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Many people quote verses 8 and 9 and leave off verse 10. But that’s wrong. We are saved by grace through faith. Yes. We can’t boast about any of that. Absolutely true. We are not saved by good works. We are saved by the work of Jesus. But we are saved for good works. And we should do them humbly, not seeking rewards or applause. We do them for God and for the sake of others, not for ourselves.
Now that we’ve looked at this passage, what do we do with it? How do we apply these verses to our lives?
First, we should consider the seriousness of sin. Jesus warned his disciples not to tempt others to sin. And he told them to keep an eye not only on themselves, but also on their brothers and sisters in the faith. What that presupposes is that Christianity is lived out in community. We can only come to Christ alone. My faith won’t save you. Your parents’ faith won’t save you. You must have faith in Jesus. You must repent of your sins. But once you become a Christian, you enter into a new family. You are a member of the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12). You’re a living stone that is part of the temple that is the church (1 Pet. 2:5). You’re part of something larger than yourself. You are not alone. You become your brother’s keeper and your sister’s keeper.
If we take this seriously, we realize that we can’t treat Christianity as some kind of product that we buy for ourselves. So many people seem to treat Christianity that way, as if it’s some kind of personal, private thing. So many people treat the church that way. They come and go as they please. They don’t actually join a church. They don’t think about their experience of church through the eyes of other people of the church.
Part of joining a church is realizing that you need accountability. You consent to come under the authority of the leaders of the church, realizing that you are a sheep who needs a shepherd. You’re a Christian who needs an overseer. You’re part of a family and you need an elder. But you also come under the authority of the congregation. They can discipline you. They can correct and rebuke you. But they can also serve you and encourage you and comfort you. And not only that, you realize that the people of the church need all those things from you. You realize that they need your correction. They need your service. They need your encouragement, your love, your presence in their lives. Every local church would be far better off if all Christians realized this. Christianity isn’t just you and your private relationship with Jesus, your personal Savior. Jesus isn’t a personal Savior. He is the world’s only Savior. And he is Lord. He’s also the head of the church, and he wants his people to enter into a real community.
So, if you’re a Christian, officially join a church and start living in community. I would say this: The more you put into church, the more you’ll get out of it. And the more other people will get out of it. If you just show up here for about 70 minutes each week, you’ll get a little. Showing up is important. It’s no small thing to attend regularly. But if you really want to be part of the life of the church, you’ll show up for our other meeting times. You’ll come early for our Bible study. You’ll hang around after the service and talk. You’ll come back Sunday evening, or join us on Wednesday nights for more Bible study and prayer. Or you’ll get together with other Christians during the week. Be part of this church in a meaningful way. If you don’t know how to do that, talk to me.
Joining a church is one thing we can do to apply this passage to our lives. But we should also note the seriousness of sin. Now, if you’re here today and you don’t happen to be a Christian, you may wonder what all of this has to do with you. Well, consider the Christian message. Sin is so toxic, so destructive, that we should do everything we can to avoid it. But that’s not the whole of the Christian message. If I told you just that, you’d think that Christianity is about trying to be good, about avoiding bad things. That might give you the impression that we get into God’s good graces through avoiding sin. But that wouldn’t be an accurate impression of Christianity.
The message of Christianity is that sin is so powerful that we cannot clean ourselves up. We can’t make ourselves good. We can’t heal ourselves of the cancer that is sin. From our perspective, it’s an incurable wound. Yet God can heal that wound. God can take that sin from us and cast it into the sea. And he does that through Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. He’s not just a man. He has always existed as the Son of God, yet over two thousand years ago, he added a second nature to himself. He became a human being. He lived a real life on Earth. He was conceived—though in a miraculous way. He was born. He grew up and learned. He ate and drank and slept. And when he was an adult, he performed miracles to demonstrate who he was and what he came to do. He taught amazing things. He lived a perfect life. Yet though he is the only human being who lived a perfect life, who never fouled things up or had the human propensity do so, he was treated like the worst of criminals. We might say he had a millstone tied around his neck and was tossed into the depths of the sea. But he was tossed into something worse. He was thrown into the heart of darkness that is God’s judgment against sin. He experienced God’s wrath while on the cross. Literally, he experienced hell on Earth. He did that so that all who turn to him in faith could have their sin cast away forever. All who turn from sin and turn in faith to Jesus have their sins removed and receive his righteous standing before God. All of that is a gift. That is what we call grace.
If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus today. I would love to talk to you personally about what it would look like for you to become a Christian. And if you are a Christian, consider how serious sin is. It is so bad that nothing less than the Son of God had to become a man and die for it. Don’t treat sin lightly. Run from it. Don’t tempt others. And if you see others sinning, help them. Correct them. Don’t be silent. There are several passages in the New Testament that talk about correcting others (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 6:1; 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:14–15; James 5:19–20). Yes, you may offend someone if you correct them. But there are worse things than offending someone else. Their offending God is far worse. And the penalty for offending God without repentance is eternal.
Here’s another thing to consider: We don’t need to ask Jesus to increase our faith. Instead, we need to obey. What matters isn’t the strength of our faith. What matters is the object of our faith. You can’t get a more solid, more powerful, more trustworthy and loving and gracious and wise object of faith than Jesus. He will not fail us. Your faith may waver. It may be mixed with doubt and even selfish motives. But Jesus will not fail. If you have even a little bit of real faith, that will lead to obedience. We don’t need to keep saying, “God, increase our faith.” Instead, we need to act on what we know to be true.
Let me put this another way. Instead of waiting for God to increase our feeling of faith before we obey, we need to obey in order to have an increased feeling of faith. If you’re married, you know how fickle emotions can be over the life of a long relationship. If you’re doing marriage well, you don’t wait around saying, “When my feeling of love for my spouse increases, then I’ll treat him or her well.” No, if you want to have a greater feeling of love, you treat your spouse in a loving way. You do something kind for your spouse, something you know your spouse will appreciate. When you do that, the feelings of love will follow.
In a similar way, if we want to have a greater experience of faith, we must obey Jesus. Do what he teaches, whether it’s the commands he gave us directly or the commands that come through the apostles. When you obey Jesus, you will find that your feeling of faith increases. When you do what he says, you will start to see how right his commands are. You will see that what seemed impossible actually turns out for your good and for the good of others. And your faith will increase. If you want a greater experience of the Christian life, don’t keep shopping around for what you think is a better church. Don’t think, “If only my church were better, I’d have more faith.” Don’t wait for God to give you riches or health or a better job or new friends. Don’t sit around and wait for feelings. Follow Jesus. And then you will find your experience of faith will be better.
But when you obey Jesus, don’t start to think that you’re great. Don’t boast. Don’t brag about your good works. And don’t think God owes you, as if you’re entitled to an easy life, a smooth ride without pain and suffering. Being faithful may mean that your life becomes harder. We don’t do good works for our own glory. We do good works for God’s glory, and for the good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. And when we do good works, we can humbly say, “We are unworthy servants, saved only by God’s grace. We have done our job for the King, for the Master, and that is a reward in itself.”
- You can see the video for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPLQNUVmq3o. ↑
- For one take on the convention, see Elliott Kaufman, “Democratic Socialists Sound Like Democrats,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/democratic-socialists-sound-like-democrats-11565214408. ↑
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 27. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 24. ↑
When Jesus tells his disciples about the seriousness of avoiding sin, they ask him to increase their faith. Jesus says that we don’t need more faith, but even a little faith will enable us to do great things. Yet we should never imagine that when we do great things, God owes us, or we’re entitled to an easy life. We’re simply to do our job. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 17:1-10 on August 11, 2019.
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. ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- 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. ↑
The last time I got on a plane to travel somewhere, I didn’t rent a car, which is what I would normally do. Because I wasn’t there long and didn’t need to drive much, I got a Lyft. That’s L-Y-F-T. It’s a ride service similar to Uber. Both are technically called transportation network companies. If you have a smart phone, you download the app, set up a source of payment, and then enter in where you want to go. You can see how much the ride will cost and how far away drivers are. In most cases you can get picked up within a few minutes. The app tells you who your driver is, what he or she is driving, and shows you on the map where the car is. It’s quick and easy and quite amazing.
These companies that use technology to connect driver and rider are changing a whole industry. It used to be that if you wanted a ride, you had to call a cab. But now the whole taxi industry is threatened. Cab drivers in London have fought to remove Uber from their city. In the States, companies like Uber and Lyft have caused the number of taxi rides to decrease rapidly. Taxi companies were slow to embrace new technology, while the new services use technology to make it easy for customers to get rides.
This is what one writer said about this sea change in the transportation industry:
We empathize with the taxi drivers, but the scenes of older players getting itchy is a scene we have seen many times. Surely the horse cart owners wouldn’t have liked it when cars started being used by all and sundry. Similarly, now we can see the same kind of contest taking place between traditional TV and the on-demand content industry led by the likes of Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix.
Whenever the new kid on the block disrupts the way things are supposed to be, emotions seem to get the better of many of the old players. Instead of being upset with the new kid, these old players need to realize that the new kid could not have succeeded if they (the old players) had done their job right and met the needs of the customers in a better manner.
New ways of doing things threaten those who are attached to the old ways. That’s true with businesses, technology, politics, and just about everything else. It’s even true with religion. And when new ways come along, those who are attached to the old ways can become angry and resent the new, even if it’s better. Often that’s because those who are attached to the old ways end up losing power.
When Jesus walked the earth two thousand years ago, he brought something new, something better. In some ways, his ministry was a continuation of what we see in the Old Testament. Like the prophets of old, he called people to repentance, to turn from doing what is wrong and to turn back to God. But in significant ways, he did something new. He actively reached out to outcasts, and he would eventually fulfill and even replace the elements of the Jewish religion, including the law, the temple, the system of animal sacrifices, ceremonial washings, and more. And when Jesus started to do this, some Jewish leaders, including one group called the Pharisees, were threatened. We’ll read about this today as we continue to study the Gospel of Luke.
So, without further ado, let’s first read Luke 5:27–32:
27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
This event is one of several stories in this section of Luke that shows Jesus calling people to follow him and/or Jesus getting into disputes with the Pharisees. Last week, I said that the Pharisees were a group of Jewish lay leaders. They weren’t priests and they didn’t have political power. But they were experts in the Torah, the law given to Israel, and they tried to apply that law to all areas of life. The word “Pharisee” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated.” They believed that Jews needed to be separated from Gentiles and “sinners.”
But Jesus had no problem reaching out to those sinners. And on this occasion, he calls a tax collector named Levi. This same man is probably also known as Matthew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.
To understand this passage, you have to know something about tax collectors. Tax collectors had a bad reputation. There are two reasons for that: one, they helped the Roman Empire collect taxes. As you may know, during the time of Jesus, Palestine was under Roman rule. This meant that Jewish tax collectors were viewed as something like traitors. The second reason is tax collectors had a reputation for being dishonest, collecting more money than they should. When some tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized, he told them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:12). So, tax collectors are often lumped together with “sinners.”
Levi was a tax collector who sat at a tax both, collecting taxes from travelers as they passed through this city, which is likely Capernaum. Capernaum was the last village on the road from the region of Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas, to the region of Gaulinitus, which was ruled by Herod Philip. For travelers leaving Galilee, this was the last chance to collect taxes. For those entering Galilee, it was the first chance to collect taxes. Either way, it was an ideal spot to collect more money.
What’s important to see is that Jesus intentionally chooses this man who would have been despised by many. He says, “Follow me,” and Levi follows. We can only imagine how authoritative Jesus must have been for Levi to get up at his word.
When Levi follows Jesus, it is a picture of repentance, which is a turning from one’s old ways of sinning and a turning to God. It is often called a change of mind, but it’s more than that. It’s a change of the whole orientation of a person’s life. It’s doing a 180-degree turn.
And in Luke’s Gospel, celebration follows repentance. So, we see that he has a feast at his house, and he invites Jesus as well as tax collectors and “others.” These were probably Levi’s associates and friends. This shows a couple of important things. One, when someone turns to Jesus, away from an old life, it doesn’t literally mean we must leave everything. Levi still had his house and his friends. And it’s not a turning away from fun and joy. Instead, it’s cause for celebration. Two, when someone starts to follow Jesus, that person should share Jesus with others. Levi tried to connect his friends with Jesus. And he did this in a very effective way: around a table of food.
This is a wonderful thing. But the Pharisees didn’t think it was so wonderful. So, sometime later, when the Pharisees and the scribes (who were experts in the law) find out about it, they grumble to Jesus’ disciples. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that “grumble” is a loaded word. It’s what the Israelites did after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Though God had removed them from oppression through a miraculous redemption, the people complained against Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron (Exod. 15:24; 16:7–8; Num. 14:2, 26–35; 16:11; 17:5, 10). They often did this because they didn’t trust that Moses and his brother were leading them in the right direction. Moses realized that the Israelites were ultimately grumbling against God. He said, “Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord” (Exod. 16:8). So, Luke is telling us that the Pharisees are on the wrong side. They are against God because they are doubting Jesus.
The Pharisees ask the disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” In their minds, this would make Jesus and his disciples unclean. They are thinking, “You shouldn’t contaminate yourself by hanging around with those people.” A couple of chapters later in Luke, Jesus will say something he attributes to the Pharisees. He says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Not only is Jesus hanging around with these outcasts, but he’s feasting with them. He’s eating and drinking wine!
This confounds the Pharisees. They can’t imagine that Jesus could hang around sinners and yet not sin himself. In his commentary on Luke, Darrell Bock writes, “Jesus associated with sinners and condemned all sin—their sin as well as the sins of others.” Jesus certainly wasn’t doing anything wrong by associating with sinners. It’s not as if merely eating and drinking with them would make him unclean or sinful.
Perhaps the real reason why the Pharisees were grumbling was because Jesus threatened them. They couldn’t refute his teachings or deny his miracles. So, they tried to slander him. In another commentary I’ve been reading, David Garland writes this:
Pharisees did not have hereditary ties to positions of power as the priests and village elders did, and therefore their social status was unstable. Their standing in society derived from their knowledge of Jewish law and traditions. They constantly struggled to exert their influence in society and to recruit new members. Their rules built up social boundaries and kept members united to one another. The throngs of people drawn to Jesus by his authority and power and the good news of his message threatened their own power to affect persons. Their grumbling may be attributable to their fear that they were in danger of losing influence.
The Pharisees were threatened, and they surely thought Jesus was wrong to spend any time with the so-called sinners. Jesus knows this and he responds by saying that only the sick need a doctor, and that he came not for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.
The problem with the Pharisees—and the problem with a lot of religious people today—is that they don’t really view themselves as sick, or as sinners. They think they’re okay, but it’s those “other people,” whoever they are, that are the bad ones. But the Bible is quite clear in saying that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus, are sinners. All of us have turned away from God. We have ignored him and rejected him. We have failed to love him the way we should. We have failed to love other people the way we should. This applies to each one of us.
Jesus came for the people who knew they were sick, who knew they were sinners. People who realize their need can turn to Jesus in faith for healing, to be reconciled to God. People who think they’re fine, thank you very much, are people that Jesus can’t help. Only those who realize their need can be helped by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, the people who realized their spiritual bankruptcy were often the people who were despised, the people who had clearly made a mess of their lives.
As I said earlier, in a way, this is nothing new. People of faith have always realized that they need God. They need God because he is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He is the giver of every good gift. He is the one who fulfills the deepest longings of our souls. He is the one who gives us life after death—and true life even before we die. By calling people to turn back to God, Jesus wasn’t doing anything new.
But Jesus was already threatening the old ways of Judaism, and in time he would do some things that would forever change how people relate to God. At this time, the Jews were under the so-called “old covenant” that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, after they left Egypt. In his death, Jesus would inaugurate the new covenant, which promised true knowledge of God, forgiveness of sins, a transformed life, and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). In the old covenant, the temple was the place where God met with his people. But Jesus would replace the temple. The “place” where we meet God isn’t a building. This building is not God’s house. No, God’s house is Jesus. In fact, the church is now God’s house, because it is the body of Christ on earth and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would put an end to the system of animal sacrifices, because his death on the cross is the only true sacrifice for sin. God is a perfect judge, and he must punish all evil. There are two ways he does this. He will condemn all evil people who do not turn to Jesus. But for those who turn to Jesus and trust him, their sin is punished at the cross. Jesus also put an end to all ceremonial washings, because his death makes us clean. And other things like circumcision and Sabbath observance were also set aside.
These old ways of relating to God couldn’t coexist with the new ways that Jesus and his apostles would establish. Jesus makes this clear in the next several verses. Let’s read Luke 5:33–39:
33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? 35 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days.” 36 He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. 38 But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. 39 And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
The “they” of verse 33 who speak to Jesus was probably a crowd, speaking sometime after the feast. Luke has compressed time in this passage, so it seems like everything is happening at once. A crowd is asking Jesus about why he does things differently from John the Baptist and the Pharisees. After all, their followers often fasted, not eating in order to focus on praying.
Fasting was a significant part of Judaism. On the annual Day of Atonement, the people were supposed to fast (Lev. 16:29). In the Old Testament, fasts were also held to remember the destruction of Jerusalem (Zech. 7:3, 5; 8:19), to indicate repentance (1 Kgs. 21:27; Isa. 58:1–9; Joel 1:14; 2:15–27; Jon. 3:5–9), to mourn (Esth. 4:3), or to seek guidance from God (2 Chron. 20:3; Ezra 8:21; Jer. 36:9). The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. Fasting was a way of spending focused time with God.
But Jesus says that God is here. He calls himself the bridegroom. In the Old Testament, God is likened to the husband of Israel, his bride (Isa. 54:5–6; 62:4–5; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 2:14–23). The metaphor of marriage shows how God is the protector and provider of his people, and it shows that the relationship between God and his people should be exclusive. They shouldn’t worship anyone else other than God. The fact that Jesus says this is not a time of fasting, and that he is the bridegroom, is a hint that he is God.
Jesus also hints that he won’t always be on earth. He says that the bridegroom will be “taken away,” which might be a reference to his death. There will be a time for fasting later, but ow is not the time. Time spent with Jesus is a feast. Elsewhere in the Bible, various images of Jesus’ return and the new creation he will establish depict a feast (Isa. 25:6–9; Rev. 19:6–9). We may fast now to spend time in focused prayer, or to seek guidance from God, or to mourn, but in eternity, there will be no need to fast. We will feast with Jesus.
Jesus made it clear that the old ways of the old covenant couldn’t mix with the new ways of the new covenant by using a couple of analogies. The first was about clothing. You can’t patch a hole in an old garment with a new piece of cloth. The new piece of cloth will later shrink and then be torn, and the whole thing will be ruined. And the new piece of cloth won’t match the old, anyway. In a similar way, you don’t put new wine in an old wineskin. When wine is made, it ferments, releasing some gas that would stretch the wineskin. Old wineskins were already stretched. They were hard and brittle. If you put new wine in those wineskins, they would burst. So, you put old wine in old wineskins and new wine in new wineskins. The basic point is that something new had arrived, and in order for anyone to be reconciled to God, they had to follow Jesus.
Verse 39, if taken alone, makes it seem like the old wine of the old covenant is better than the new. But that’s not Jesus’ point. His point has to do with human nature. People often prefer what they’re accustomed to. They like the old. When something new comes along, they don’t like it. They don’t even want to try it, because they don’t see anything wrong with the old. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they think. But the old covenant couldn’t make people right with God. The law said, “If you obey, you will be my people” (Exod. 19:5–6). What the law did was reveal how sinful people are. We can’t obey perfectly. And even if we followed rules, we would do so for the wrong reasons. Christianity is very different from other religions. Other religions say, “Do this and you get to God/Paradise/Nirvana.” Christianity says, “You can’t do enough to get to God. All your actions are tainted with selfishness, pride, and greed. If we’re really honest, we would see that we often fail our own standards, let alone God’s standards.” But Christianity also teaches that God came down to rescue us, apart from the law. Salvation is a gift. It isn’t something earned. And it can only be received by faith, by knowing that we have a need, a problem that we can’t fix, and that Jesus provides the answer.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, what does it teach us? How does it affect our lives?
I think there are two ways that it applies to us today. One has to do with relating to God. If we are going to have a right relationship with God, we have to realize that we are sick, and that Jesus is the only physician who can heal us. We have to realize that we are not righteous on our own, that we’re sinners, rebels against God. And we have to realize that only Jesus’ perfect life credited to us can make us righteous, and that only Jesus’ death on the cross can atone for our sins. The response to Jesus is the same today as it was almost two thousand years ago. We must trust him, repent, and follow him.
If you’re not sure where you stand with Jesus, if you’re on the fence about him, or if you think you’re a Christian but you’re not really turning away from sin and following Jesus, I would urge you to start today. And I would love to talk to you. We will either be with Jesus or we will be against Jesus. To be apathetic about Jesus is to be against him. Levi knew that Jesus was authoritative. He must have sensed that Jesus could give him what he truly needed. So, he left his old way of life and followed him. That’s true today, too. We can’t just dip a toe into Christianity. We have to dive in. Jesus isn’t just something we add to our lives. Jesus becomes our life. If we’re responding to him rightly, Jesus will reorder our lives. Our priorities will change. The way we spend our time, our money, and our energy will change. Our jobs may not change. Our location may not change. But our lives certainly will change.
And that applies to Christians. Repentance isn’t just something we do at the start of our lives as Christians. We need to continue to turn back to Jesus. We are prone to wander, as the hymn says. We need to keep coming back to Jesus.
Real repentance is owning our guilt and our sin. It’s not justifying ourselves. It’s not blaming others. It’s not being defensive or manipulative. Real repentance is saying, “I’m wrong and I need to change.” Real repentance is admitting that we’re sick and turning to the one who can heal us. Real repentance will lead to real change, to new ways of living.
Are there areas in your life where you need to repent? Have you been called to repentance by others? Have you truly repented? Perhaps you’re not even aware of the changes you need to make. Be honest with yourself. Ask God to reveal your own sin. Ask him to show you where you need to repent and to give you the strength to change.
The second way this passage applies to us is in the life of this church. The Pharisees were lay leaders who grumbled at God’s appointed leader. Fortunately, that never happens in churches today! Yes, I’m being sarcastic. People still grumble today, just as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus. Grumbling against God’s leaders, when they are following God’s word, is really grumbling against God himself. I know there have been grumblings in this church. I would ask the grumblers to repent.
People often grumble when changes are made. They preferred the old ways of doing things. Yet changes are often needed. Sometimes changes are needed because the old ways weren’t God’s ways. In other words, sometimes the old ways weren’t biblical. In some cases, they were contrary to what Scripture says. That is often true of how the church was structured, or the ways that we did things. If our old ways are man-made traditions, we will have to change in order to conform more closely to the Bible. Sometimes the new ways of doing things are really the old ways laid out in Scripture. Man-made traditions and biblical commandments are often like old garments and new patches: they don’t mix. They are often like old wineskins and new wine. The old traditions hinder the growth of what is biblical. The church is always in need of reformation, and that is true of this church. We will either gladly reform, eager to be more biblical in how we operate, or we will be fighting against God.
Sometimes, changes are made not to conform more to Scripture, but simply for the sake of reaching new generations. We can’t and won’t change the Bible or our basic doctrine. The object of our worship—the one, true, living, triune God—doesn’t change. But musical styles come and go. All our favorite hymns were once new, and favorite hymns of previous eras have been forgotten. Paint and fabric colors change as trends come and go. The same is true of clothing. Our meeting times, our programs, the way we try to reach out to our community—all these things may change. But the mission, purpose, and identity of the church don’t.
I think the reason why people often grumble against such changes is because change is threatening. Sometimes, lay leaders feel that they are losing power and control. And it’s often the case that people who have been in churches for decades think they own the place. They build their identity around a particular church and its old ways of operating. When changes are made, they may feel like they are losing a piece of themselves. But we shouldn’t build our identity around a particular local church, or around particular traditions or programs. Our identity should be Jesus Christ. He doesn’t change. Local churches will change. Programs will come and go. So will traditions. Musical styles change. The way we dress changes over time. So will the look of the building. These things don’t matter so much. If we build our identity on the Rock, Jesus, we won’t find other changes so threatening. If we set aside our pride, we might even enjoy those changes. We might find that the new wine is actually better than the old.
We should also ask this question of this church and of ourselves as individuals: Are we inviting other people to meet Jesus? Levi started following Jesus, and one of the first things he did was invite others meet him. He did that in a very personal way, by holding a feast. Are we inviting non-Christians into our lives and our homes to meet Jesus?
Let us turn to Jesus, the Great Physician, for healing. Let us keep turning back to him, time and again, whenever we slip and fall. Let us follow him. Let us follow our leaders as they follow Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). And let us not grumble when necessary changes are made. To quote the book of Ecclesiastes:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Eccl. 7:10).
- Karla Adam and William Booth, “In London, Black Cabs Win a Battle against Uber. But Is the War Over?” The Washington Post, October 17, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-london-black-cabs-win-a-battle-against-uber-but-is-the-war-over/2017/10/17/8a2c1468-a395-11e7-b573-8ec86cdfe1ed_story.html?utm_term=.7af13754953a ↑
- An article published nearly two years in the Los Angeles Times states that the number of tax rides in that city had fallen 30 percent. Laura J. Nelson, “Uber and Lyft Have Devastated L.A.’s Taxi Industry, City Records Show,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uber-lyft-taxis-la-20160413-story.html ↑
- Syed Irfan Ajmal, “Ridesharing vs. Taxi—Watch This Exciting Duel of the Century Unfold,” Ridester, October 30, 2017, https://www.ridester.com/ridesharing-vs-taxi/amp/ ↑
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 497. ↑
- David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 251. ↑
- “Be Thou My Vision” contains these words: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” ↑
Jesus didn’t come to call people who were already spiritually healthy, people who were self-righteous and religious. No, Jesus came to call sinners to repentance. Learn what this means, and how it should change the way we think about God and the human condition. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 5:27-39.
“Sin and “temptation” are very religious words. We hear them in church. We read them in the Bible and in Christian books. But outside of religious circles, we don’t hear those words a lot. When we do hear them, they are used in trivial ways. People may talk about “sinfully decadent” desserts. “Oh, that chocolate cake was sinfully decadent.” And people often talk of temptation only in the context of diets. “I’ve been on a diet since the start of the year, but I was really tempted by that sinfully decadent cake.”
In general, our culture doesn’t have a serious view of sin and temptation.
But every once in a while, we all see sin for what it is. Over the last several months, many victims of sexual abuse have been coming forward. And there has been a great outrage in the public. Those who have been accused are ostracized, cast out of society. It’s like a witch hunt, and people seem to demand that the abusers be burned at the stake, even without trials. In all of this, we see the devastating power of sin. Sin hurts all of us. It affects all of life. It corrupts that which God originally made good. The victims of sexual abuse clearly carry the scars of the sins of others. But the fact is that all of us carry scars from sin—our sin, the sins of others, and the corruption that has entered into a fallen world because of sin of the first human beings.
While many people are pointing out the sins of sexual abusers, very few people talk about the underlying factors and causes that lead certain people to commit sexual abuse. And fewer people still talk about what kind of society would help people deal with sexual temptation. Because we all have sinful natures, many of us will experience sexual temptation. Some of us will feel very strong urges to do things that are against God’s design for sex. How do we deal with these temptations?
That question should lead us to think about the problem of sin and the answer to that problem. Sin is ultimately a rebellion against God. No, not all of us have committed sexual abuse. But we have all failed to live for God. We have all done wrong. We’ve ignored the very reason we live, move, and have our being. We were made in God’s image and likeness, which means that we were meant to reflect God’s glory, to represent him, to worship him, to love him, and to obey him. And we don’t do that, at least not all the time. And if we’re being honest, we all feel the pull to do things that are wrong, things that are selfish, things that are destructive.
What is the answer to this problem? Well, the good old Sunday school answer remains the same: “Jesus!” Jesus is the answer to our sin. As I said last week, Jesus is our champion. He wins the battles that we can’t win, the battles that we have lost. We have all been tempted, and we have given into temptation. Jesus, as the true Son of God and the true image of God, never sinned, even though he was tempted. Part of his mission was to resist temptation and to defeat the Tempter, the devil.
Today, we’re going to look at Luke 4:1–13. Last week, we saw that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River. Right after being baptized, while Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit came upon him and God the Father announced that Jesus is his beloved Son. After that episode, Luke presents to us a genealogy that moves in reverse order, connecting Jesus to the first man, Adam. Adam is called “the son of God” (Luke 3:38), but Adam wasn’t a perfect son, because he failed to obey God. A perfectly loving son would perfectly obey a perfect Father. Adam failed. After Adam had failed, God created a people out of an old man, Abraham, and his once-barren wife, Sarah. And when Israel had multiplied in Egypt, they were called God’s “son” (Exod. 4:22). Yet Israel repeatedly sinned.
God wants to relate to a people. God makes covenants with these people. Covenants are like binding pacts, treaties, if you will. They include promises but also establish expectations. All the covenant partners of the Old Testament failed: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, King David. Jesus comes to be the perfect covenant partner, the perfect human being who fulfills God’s plans and expectations for mankind. That’s why Jesus’ obedience matters so much.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s read through today’s passage. After we read the passage, I’ll make a few points about what we see in this passage, and then I’ll discuss several ways that it applies to our lives. Here is Luke 4:1–13:
1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 6 and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 And Jesus answered him, “It is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”
9 And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
12 And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13 And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I want to make several observations about what we see in this passage. First, we see that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit and he is led by the Holy Spirit. In other words, he is exactly where God wants him. Of course, Jesus is divine. He is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God, with an eternal, divine nature. But over two thousand years ago he added a second nature, a human nature. And he lived his life on earth primarily as a man. Much of Jesus’ strength in his ministry comes from the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, this scene takes place in the wilderness. And he was there for forty days, while fasting. All of that reminds us of Israel. During the time of Moses, the Israelites were enslaved under the Pharaoh in Egypt. God rescued them out of slavery through many miracles, including the ten plagues, the last of which was the Passover. He led them through the Red Sea and to Mount Sinai, where he gave them his law, including the Ten Commandments, and he made a covenant with them. And then he led them through the wilderness for forty years (Num. 14:33; 32:13). Forty days also reminds us of the time when Moses was on Mount Sinai, receiving the law (Exod. 24:18). Like Jesus, Israel was also led by the Holy Spirit (Neh. 9:20; Isa. 63:11.) Their time in the wilderness was a time of testing (Deut. 8:2). And they failed that test, repeatedly sinning.
Third, Jesus was fasting for forty days, just as the prophets Moses and Elijah had done (Exod. 34:28; 1 Kgs. 19:8). This is apparently as long as a human can possibly fast. Fasting is often associated with having a special focus on God, relying on his strength and provision in the place of food. Jesus is clearly relying on God throughout this whole passage.
Fourth, Jesus was tempted by the devil, Satan. This tempting apparently lasted the entire time of the forty days. It’s likely that the three temptations we see here were either representative of Satan’s temptations or they were the final temptations Jesus faced, after he had been fasting for about forty days.
The word “devil” is based on a Greek word (διάβολος) that means “slanderer.” And the word “Satan” is based on a Hebrew word (שָׂטָן) that means “adversary.” That tells us a lot about who the devil is. Luke hardly explains who the devil is. And, really, he’s not mentioned a lot in the Old Testament. But there are a few important times when he appears. We know from the end of the Bible, the book of Revelation, that Satan is the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (Rev. 12:9). He got them to doubt God’s goodness. Quite famously, he questioned whether God had actually given a commandment. He said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of the any tree in the garden’?” (Gen. 3:1). When Eve said that yes, God had given that commandment and that if they disobeyed, they would die, Satan said, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:2–4). And he led Eve to believe that God had given this commandment in order to keep them from having their eyes opened and becoming like God (Gen. 3:5). Adam and Eve gave into this temptation and ate the forbidden fruit. They trusted Satan’s words more than they trusted God’s. And because of that, the world came under a curse and they were kicked out of the garden, a paradise, and into the wilderness.
Satan also appears in the book of Job, which I preached through last year. There, Satan appears as an angel in heaven. He seems intent on showing that Job, a righteous man, worshiped God only because God had given Job a good life, including wealth and a large family. God allowed Satan to take that wealth, that family, and even good health away from Job. But Satan was wrong. Job didn’t curse God. Job wrestled with God in his suffering, but he never lost his faith.
We also see Satan in a vision in the book of Zechariah. In Zechariah 3, Satan appears as an accuser. He points out the sin of the high priest, Joshua. Yet God removes Joshua’s filthy garments and replaces them with pure, clean clothing (Zech. 3:1–5). Though Joshua was a sinner, God made him clean.
And we’re told that Satan “incited” King David to make a census, in order to number the people of Israel (1 Chron. 21:1). It seems that Satan caused David to trust in numbers and to become proud, instead of relying on God and his power.
So, what does Satan do? He tempts. He lies. He wants to create a division between God and his people. He accuses God’s people, delighting to point out their sin. It seems Satan wanted nothing more than to derail Jesus’ mission, to get him to doubt God and his goodness and to get him to follow him instead of the words of his Father in heaven.
Fifth, Satan tempts Jesus. He begins with these words, “If you are the Son of God.” It’s almost as if Satan is trying to create doubt in Jesus’ mind. This reminds me of Satan’s words to Eve: “Did God really say . . . ?” Jesus knows he’s the Son of God. God told him so (Luke 3:22). But here he is, in the wilderness, being harassed by Satan and he’s also very, very hungry. Perhaps Satan was trying to get Jesus to question the goodness of his own Father. At any rate, Satan tells Jesus to turn stone into bread so he can eat.
It’s important to note this about Jesus and his temptations. Jesus’ temptations are unique. Most of us are tempted by bad desires within us. But that’s not true of Jesus. Jesus, even as a man, did not have a fallen, sinful nature. But we do. James, Jesus’ brother, writes this in his letter:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (James 1:13–15).
Jesus wasn’t tempted by anything bad within himself. It’s no sin to eat when you’re hungry. But Jesus would have been using his supernatural powers to serve his own will, not the Father’s, and he would have been doubting his Father’s love and provision for him, the way the Israelites doubted God in the wilderness. Jesus said, in John 6:38, “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” His mission was to fulfill his Father’s will, not his own. So, he answers Satan with Scripture, quoting a passage from Israel’s wilderness wanderings. He uses Deuteronomy 8:3. He says, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”The Scriptures, God’s Word, were his food. In John 4:34, Jesus says, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” Jesus trusted God so much that he knew God would get him through this period of fasting. He didn’t need to listen to Satan. He trusted his Father and his Father’s words.
Satan’s second temptation begins in verse 5. He somehow shows Jesus all the kingdoms in the world, probably in some kind of vision, and he says that all of these can belong to Jesus if only he will do one thing: worship the devil. That sounds like a bad hard rock song, but Satan would love to have Jesus worship anyone or anything other than God the Father.
I don’t know that Satan was telling the truth here. Yes, Satan is called “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31) and the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). I suppose that’s because the “world” often means the whole system of sinful humanity that is opposed to God. But God is the true ruler of the world. It’s his world (Ps. 24:1). Satan can only have power because God allows it, for mysterious purposes that somehow bring about his plans. Satan often tells half-truths. He told some half-truths to Eve. He said that when she ate the forbidden fruit, she wouldn’t die. It’s true she didn’t physically die that very day. But Adam and Eve’s sin did lead to death. At any rate, it seems like Satan is probably overselling here. He’s offering Jesus authority and glory, which is something that only God can give.
In fact, Daniel prophesied that the “Ancient of Days” (God the Father) would give “dominion and glory and a kingdom” to the “Son of Man,” Jesus (Dan. 7:14). But before Jesus receives that power, he must first suffer. Satan offers Jesus a path to glory without suffering. He’s offering Jesus a kingdom without a cross. Jesus didn’t come the first time to be a political ruler. He didn’t come to be rich and famous. He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). And he saves by identifying with sinful human beings, by living in a world of violence and pain, and by suffering on the cross, dying a criminal’s death to save sinners. Without that suffering, there is no salvation. Without that suffering, we couldn’t be reconciled to God and forgiven of our sins. Without that suffering, Jesus couldn’t be a King, because in the end he wouldn’t have any subjects. All sinners would be condemned, and there would be no one to dwell with Jesus forever.
Jesus’ own disciple, Peter, once tried to persuade Jesus not to suffer and die. And how did Jesus respond? He said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23). Jesus knew he came to die in the place of sinners, and nothing could stop him.
That’s why Jesus responds to Satan, again using a passage from Deuteronomy. This time he quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 and says, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” Only God deserves worship. If we worship anything other than God, we’re sinning. How many people will get more excited about the Super Bowl next Sunday than about church? When we put our love, our hope, our money, and our emotions into anything more than worshiping God, that reveals our true object of worship. Whatever we love, trust, and obey the most is our god. If we look to anything other than God to find our ultimate security, meaning, acceptance, happiness, and identity, we’re worshiping a false god, an idol. We have all done this in some way or another, even if we don’t think of it as worship. But Jesus never failed to love, obey, and worship his Father in heaven.
The third temptation that Satan offers to Jesus begins in verse 9. We’re told he brought him to the top of the temple in Jerusalem. This was probably on the southeast corner of the temple complex, high above the Kidron Valley below. From the top of the temple to the bottom of the valley was about 450 feet. This time, Satan wants Jesus to test God. Again, the idea is that God’s Son shouldn’t suffer. So, once again, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God . . .” And this time, Satan quotes Scripture. He uses Psalm 91:11–12, which promises that God will deliver his people through angels. In fact, the whole Psalm promises deliverance. The fact that Satan quotes this Psalm shows that even Satan knows Scripture. He probably has more head knowledge about God than we do. According to John Piper, “Indeed the devil thinks more true thoughts about God in one day than a saint does in a lifetime, and God is not honored by it. The problem with the devil is not his theology, but his desires.” False teachers often use Scripture today, but they use only bits of it, and often out of context. If you take something out of context, you can make it say almost anything you want. But while God does promise deliverance in the Bible, it doesn’t mean it will come automatically. The Bible promises ultimate deliverance. When Jesus returns, there will be a final day of judgment and salvation, and God’s people will be delivered from sin, death, and a corrupt world. They will live in paradise forever with God. But before then, God’s people will get sick and die. They will feel pain and sorrow and suffering.
Jesus knew that his path would include suffering. It’s no sin not to want to be hurt. But Jesus knew that the kind of stunt Satan was asking him to perform wasn’t really a sign of trust in God. It was testing God. If we really trust God, we don’t need him to show us he cares for us by providing miracles for us. It would be like one of us saying, “God, if you really are a God who saves, catch me after I jump off this bridge.” If you need that kind of sign from God, you don’t have faith, you have doubt. Jesus knew this. So, once again, he quoted Scripture, this time using Deuteronomy 6:16: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Here’s the sixth observation I want to make about this passage before we move on to thinking about how it applies to our lives. When Jesus withstands the devil’s temptations, the devil leaves. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be gone, Satan!” (Matt. 4:10). Here, we’re simply told Satan departed. But then we’re given an ominous note: “he departed from him until an opportune time.” Though Satan knew he couldn’t tempt Jesus, he wasn’t finished. In fact, I think you can make a good argument that he carried on his work through the various Jewish religious authorities who came to Jesus in order to test him and trap him (for example, see Luke 10:25; 11:16). People who didn’t believe Jesus was indeed the Son of God falsely accused him. They did the work of Satan by telling lies against him.
Later, Satan would influence one of Jesus’ followers to betray him. Luke says that “Satan entered into Judas,” who arranged to have Jesus arrested away from the crowds (Luke 22:3–6). And when Jesus was being crucified, people who passed by mocked him, echoing Satan’s words, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40).
And though Jesus’ temptations at this time came to an end, he wasn’t done being tempted. On the night before he died, he was tempted in a garden, just like Adam. This time, he was tempted about food. No, he was tempted not to face God’s wrath against sin. Again, it’s no sin not to want to suffer and die. And it’s no sin to not want to feel the absence of God’s love. Jesus had experienced unbroken fellowship with God the Father forever, and now he was facing the possibility of experiencing his Father’s wrath. This was the Son of God’s plan, too, but it’s one thing to know a plan in advance; it’s quite another thing to experience something in the present. So, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). Jesus was in agony. Luke says, “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Yet Jesus loved the Father so much he did his will. He said, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ divine will caused him to want to die for sinners. Jesus’ human will didn’t want to suffer such wrath, but he loved the Father so much he was willing to submit to the Father’s plan.
Even though Satan tried to stop Jesus, he couldn’t. Nothing could stop Jesus from succeeding where Adam failed, where Israel failed, and where you and I fail.
Now that we’ve gone through this passage, let’s think about how it applies to our lives. How should we respond to this passage?
The first thing we should do is to be thankful that Jesus is our champion. We should again be thankful that God sent his only, beloved Son into the world to save us from sin, to do what we don’t and can’t do. In this case, he successfully resisted temptation. Like I said last week, we don’t just want to think of Jesus as an example. Yes, he’s an example. But he’s more than that. He fights the ultimate war of sin and death against Satan for those who trust in him. If you are united to Jesus because you have faith in him, he has resisted temptation for you, and he has won.
Second, if you don’t know Jesus personally as your Lord and Savior, the time to trust in his victory is now. We must admit that we have all given in to temptation. We have all failed to do what is right. We have failed to put God first in our lives, and that’s why we exist. Jesus came to save failures from sin and condemnation. But in order to be reconciled to God, to be forgiven, you must first acknowledge your failure. And then you must turn to Jesus.
Third, Jesus is an example of how to fight against temptation. How did he do that? He used things that are available to all of us. He was led by the Holy Spirit. If you’re truly a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you. Don’t forget that. Ask God to give you the strength to resist temptation.
The greatest tool that Jesus used to resist temptation was Scripture. He used God’s word to turn back Satan. In fact, Jesus’ greatest representative, the apostle Paul, calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). It’s a weapon. When we’re under pressure, considering whether to do the right thing or not, we can think back to what is true. But we can only use that tool if we’ve been training to use it. You can’t use God’s word if you don’t know it. Jesus spent years learning and memorizing Scripture. Remember that passage in chapter 2 of Luke that describes the 12-year-old Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem, listening to and questioning the teachers (Luke 2:41–52)? I suppose Luke gave us that story in part to show that Jesus spent his time as a youth learning the Bible. Yes, in his divine nature he knows everything, including the content of the Bible. But, strange as it may seem, he lived primarily as a man, setting aside his divine powers and using his human nature. So, in his human nature, he had to learn. And he learned Scripture.
Do we know Scripture that way? Can we think about what God says about sex and money and honesty when we’re tempted to cheat, steal, and gratify our urges? Part of why we should read the Bible multiple times is to drill God’s word into our minds and hearts, so that we’re trained to live righteous lives.
Also, Jesus simply obeyed. Not only did he have the Spirit and the Scriptures, but he had a heart to obey God. Obedience comes not out of duty, but out of love. If we love and trust God, we will want to obey him. We will know that his word is true and that his commands are for our benefit. If we love God, we will want to obey. We will want to know his word.
Here’s a fourth, related point. Learning to live righteously and to resist temptation takes training. Jesus began his public ministry after he turned thirty. He might have been about 32 or 33 years old. He needed time to learn, time to practice living rightly and resisting smaller temptations before taking on Satan in the wilderness. Resisting temptation takes training. We begin to learn how to resist temptations by starting with small things.
In his great book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,
Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.
If Jesus has fought the war against sin for us, that doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in a battle, a battle that we must fight. And each choice we make is a small tactical maneuver that will help us win or lose that battle. Each choice matters. We need to make the right choices in little things in order to condition our moral reflexes to do the right thing.
This past week, I watched a video that’s part of a new series about Tom Brady. It’s only available on Facebook, and the series is called Tom vs. Time. In that first episode, Brady says, “What are you willing to do and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be? You only have so much energy, and the clock’s ticking on all of us. And when you say yes to something, it means you gotta say no to something else.” He then says his life is focused around football. If you’re a Christian, your life should be focused on God and you should desire to be the best Christian you can be. If you say yes to Jesus, that means you say no to a lot of other things. You may be tempted to stay home on a Sunday morning. But the Bible says that forsaking worship together is a sin (Heb. 10:24–25). We may be tempted to watch television and not read the Bible and pray, but God tells us that our food is God’s word (Deut. 8:3). Start training with the small things and you’ll be ready to fight the battle.
Fifth, and this is just an observation, Jesus was tempted because he was doing God’s will. He was where God wanted him to be, doing what God wanted him to do. Satan doesn’t bother tempting those who are doing a fine job of sinning. A lot of people are already happy to give in to temptation. They don’t need his “help.” Satan attacks us hardest when we’re doing what God wants us to do. So, don’t be surprised to come under Satan’s attacks when you’re actually obeying. Satan doesn’t want you to follow Jesus. He can’t separate you from Christ, but he’ll do what he can to hurt you and confuse you.
Sixth and finally, we don’t want to be part of Satan’s attacks. Satan lies, often dealing with half-truths. He is “the accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). He tempts. We shouldn’t be part of telling lies, or even half-truths. Someone once said that when a half-truth is presented as a whole truth, it’s not the truth at all. We shouldn’t accuse each other, pointing fingers. We shouldn’t tempt each other. Now, I want to be very clear. There may be a temptation right now in this church to talk about things you don’t really know about. There may be a temptation to think you know what happened when you don’t. There may be a temptation to gossip, to jump to conclusions, to imagine things that aren’t true. Don’t do it. If you don’t know the whole truth about something, it’s best not to talk about it. And tell others not to. We want to fight against Satan, not be his instruments.
Let us thank Jesus for fighting against temptation for us. Let us thank him for dying on the cross to pay for our sins. Let us trust that victory on our behalf. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Jesus, resisting the devil by the power of the Spirit and by using God’s word. And let’s help each other fight that battle.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Alan D. Lieberson, “How Long Can a Person Survive without Food?” Scientific American, November 8, 2004, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-can-a-person-sur/ (accessed January 12, 2015). ↑
- You can find all those sermons at https://wbcommunity.org/job. ↑
- Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 379. For a description of this height, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.11.5. ↑
- John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 30-31. This reminds me of some lyrics from Tom Waits’s song, “Misery’s the River of the World”: “The devil knows the Bible like the back of his hand.” ↑
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 132. ↑
We see evil in the world and we ourselves feel the pull to do what is wrong. What do we do with temptation and sin? Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 4:1-13, in which Jesus resists the devil’s temptations. See how Jesus resists temptations for us and how we can follow Jesus’ example in resisting temptation.
On September 6, 2015, Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 6:1-10, in which the apostle Paul discusses the need to help each other in the Christian life.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the importance of the image of God. Genesis 1:26-28 says that God made human beings in his image and likeness. Brian explains the meaning and significance of this idea, why it gives us purpose in our lives, how we fail to live according to God’s design, and how we can find hope and renewal in Jesus Christ.
There always have been, and there always will be (well, until Jesus returns), misunderstandings about Christianity. Some people think that Christianity is moralism. It’s all about toeing the line, obeying the rules, and generally having a miserable time. The writer and atheist H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Many people see Christians as dour, “holier than thou” killjoys who talk more about what they’re against than what they’re for. Perhaps atheists, agnostics, and generally irreligious people see Christianity as just another religion, one in which you’re supposed to follow the rules if you want to get to heaven.
Other people see Christianity in a different light. I once met a young man whose pastor was a father. This young man was not a Christian. He said he didn’t think it was fair that a good person, say, a doctor who dedicated his life to going to third-world countries where he would serve the poor, could go to hell because he didn’t follow Jesus. Other people, perhaps people who follow strict religions, think that the idea of grace is a ticket to sin. They don’t think it’s fair that a murderer could be forgiven. And they think that if we’re simply forgiven all our sins, then there’s nothing to keep us from continually sinning.
I suppose those misunderstandings about Christianity exist because of false teachers. There have been some people who have stressed obedience so much that they hardly mention God’s mercy and grace. They have falsely given the impression that Christianity is primarily about obeying a set of rules and striving to be a good person. And I suppose there are others who have falsely taught that God’s grace doesn’t place any demands on us, so we can sin abundantly so grace would abound abundantly. Today, it seems that the false teaching regarding Christianity leans toward universalism. Universalism is the belief that, in the end, everyone will be reconciled to God. In other words, universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, everyone will be with God forever.
The passage that we’re looking at today, 1 John 2:1–6, if misunderstood, could cause someone to think that Christianity is all about not sinning, or that everyone’s sins are paid for. But when rightly understood, this passage speaks against such things. John’s letter is so important because it gives us a fuller picture of what it means to be a Christian, and as we study this letter, we’ll discuss false versions of Christianity.
So, without further ado, let’s read the whole paragraph, and then I’ll explain it.
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
John begins by telling his readers one of the reasons why he is writing to them. He calls them “little children” because he is an old man, and he probably feels a sense of fatherly love for these Christians. Because he loves them and cares for them, he says that he writes so that they may not sin. If that were all he wrote, it would be easy to misunderstand John’s message and think, “So, Christianity is all about not sinning!” Well, the truth is that Christians shouldn’t sin. They shouldn’t want to sin, but not for the reasons that some might think.
You see, John is concerned about three things in this letter. You may say he’s concerned about the head, the heart, and the hands. He wants his readers to truly know God. He wants them to have correct beliefs about Jesus. He also wants them to have a right love for God and for others. That love should reflect God’s love for us and it should motivate everything that we do. And he wants his readers to live rightly. So, rightly understood, not sinning isn’t about trying to earn something from God. It’s about trying to live the best life, the one God wants for us. When we sin, we’re going against God’s design for our lives. Not sinning doesn’t mean life will be easy or fun, but when we sin less, we’ll naturally experience more of God’s blessings. But our desire not to sin shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to earn something from God. It should be motivated by love for God and thanks for what God has done for us. We shouldn’t want to sin because it is harmful to us and it is displeasing to God.
We don’t want to miss the second half of verse 1. John says that is we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John knows that we’re going to sin, even though our goal should be to sin less and less. Toward the end of chapter 1, he writes that if we say we don’t sin, we’re liars (1 John 1:8, 10). Though John’s statements about not sinning seem rather strict, I don’t think he expects that we’re going to reach a level of sinless perfection in this life. And the good news is that if we sin, we have an advocate, a defender. The Greek word is παράκλητος, which is used in John’s Gospel to refer to the Holy Spirit. It is sometimes translated “helper” or “comforter.” Jesus promised his disciples that “another Helper” would come to them, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). The first Helper, our champion, defender, Lord, and Savior, is Jesus himself.
What does it mean for Jesus to be our advocate? A couple of other passages shed light on this issue. Here is Romans 8:33–34:
33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
And here is Hebrews 7:23–27:
23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
These passages state that no one can condemn God’s chosen people, true Christians, because Jesus makes intercession for them. He is a forever-priest, never failing to intercede for his people. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament Israel, he will never die, and he has no sins of his own to atone for.
To be our advocate, or to intercede for us, means that Jesus is pleading our case before God the Father. It’s as if he is saying to the Father, “Look, I died for them! I took the penalty that they deserve! And, look again, I’m the righteous one! My perfect, sinless life is credited to them. Father, when you consider them, look at what I’ve done.”
Jesus is also praying for us. Perhaps it’s best to consider a passage from the Gospels that shows what that looks like. While on earth, Jesus prayed for his disciples. When Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will betray Jesus, Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus prayed for Peter. He prayed that his faith wouldn’t fail, even though Satan wanted to sift him like wheat, or remove him from Jesus’ flock. What’s interesting is that the first “you”—“Satan demanded to have you”—is plural. Satan wanted the disciples, not just Peter. And Jesus says he prayed individually for Peter. According to Mark Jones, a pastor and theologian, “There is no Christian alive who has not had Christ mention his or her name to the Father.”
Think about that: If you have real, abiding faith in Jesus, it is because the Father chose you from before the foundation of the world, and because Jesus died for your sins (Eph. 1:3–10). And Jesus is now—right now!—pleading your case before the Father. And he will always do that. That means if you fail—and you will—Jesus is always pleading your case. He will never give up on you. His sacrificial death on the cross is more than enough to pay for your sins. His righteous life is more than enough to present you acceptable and blameless in God’s eyes. That is great news.
Now, let’s move on to verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word, “propitiation,” is a big one, and it can be translated in different ways. Sometimes, it’s understood as “expiation,” which means extinguishing guilt, or making atonement. Propitiation includes that idea but goes further. It means to gain or regain favor, or to appease. The idea is that Jesus not only wipes away the guilt of the sinners who trust in him, but he also makes the Father favorable toward them. Robert Peterson puts it this way: “Propitiation is directed toward God and expiation is directed toward sin. Propitiation is the turning away of God’s wrath, and expiation is the putting away of sin.”
The idea goes back to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. Even before God gave Israel the law, it appears that some sacrifices made God favorable once again toward humanity. In the days of Noah, the people on earth were wicked, and God sent a flood to judge the world. He saved only Noah and his family. After the flood waters subsided, Noah offered up a sacrifice. We read this in Genesis 8:20–22:
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
It seems that the smell of the sacrifice pleased God and made him favorable towards humanity. He promised never to curse the ground again and destroy every living creature on earth. This sacrifice seems to have satisfied God’s righteous demand for sin to be punished.
One other Old Testament passage sheds some light on Jesus’ sacrifice. In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement. This was one day a year when the sins of Israel would be wiped away and paid for. The high priest first had to offer the sacrifice of a bull for his own sin (Lev. 16:6, 11–14). Then he took two goats. One goat would be killed and the other would be the “scapegoat.” The blood of the goat that was killed would purify the tabernacle and the altar of all the sins of Israel, which corrupted their worship of God (Lev. 16:15–19). The high priest would then place his hands on the live goat, symbolically transferring the sins of Israel to this goat, which would then be released into the wilderness. In Leviticus 16:21–22, we read these instructions concerning Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first high priest:
21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.
In that way, all the sins of Israel were removed.
Of course, these actions didn’t actually accomplish anything. That’s why I said they were symbolic. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Animals can never be substitutes for human beings. We need a human being who can step in for us. We also need a human being who is a perfect sacrifice, one who is infinite, who can take on the sins of millions and even billions of people who come to him, one who will never change. There’s only one person who can fulfill that role, and that is Jesus. He takes away the sin of everyone who is united to him. And he makes God propitious, or favorable, toward us. Paul, borrowing the sacrificial language of the Old Testament, says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus willingly died for us, and his sacrifice was pleasing to the Father. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”
John then also says that Jesus makes propitiation for the whole world. This, again, is verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I think this needs some explaining. This may be a verse that attracts universalists. They might say, “Ah, Jesus has taken care of the sin problem of everyone in the world! I don’t think that’s what John means at all. Let’s think through this a bit. First, we should note that in the Greek, it doesn’t say “for the sins of the whole world,” but only “for the whole world.” Now, maybe that doesn’t affect the meaning much, because “sins of” is implied.
But, second, we need to look carefully at how John uses “world” in this letter. One of the ways that we read the Bible well is by paying attention to how an author uses language. We may think we understand a sentence when we’re reading it because we’re reading it the way we would use that language. But what we’re trying to do is understand what John meant. So, look at 1 John 2:15–17:
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
That first sentence seems quite absolute: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” So, love nothing physical, right? Wrong. Look at how John defines “world” in verse 16: “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” But, wait a minute! Didn’t God create everything in the world? In 1 Timothy 4:4, Paul writes, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So, in this passage, John means that we shouldn’t love “worldly” things, things that take us away from God, things that cause us to covet and to be proud. He doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love each and every “thing” in the world.
Then look at 1 John 5:18–19:
18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
John says that those who are “born of God” are protected and the evil one, Satan, cannot touch them. Then he says that “the whole world” lies in the power of Satan. Clearly, “the whole world” cannot include Christians, who are not touched by Satan. So, “the whole world” doesn’t mean everyone in the world, just as “all that is in the world” doesn’t mean every single thing and/or person in the world.
Third, we need to use some basic reasoning. If Jesus indeed was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, in the sense of “for every single person without exception in the world,” that would mean that everyone’s sins would be removed. God would be favorable toward every single human being. We might wish that were the case. Indeed, it would be nice to think that all human beings will be saved. But that’s not what the Bible says. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” God’s wrath will come upon those who reject Jesus. But if Jesus were the propitiation for all the sins of every single person in the world, no one would face God’s wrath.
So, what does John mean? I think he means that Jesus is the only savior. He is not just the savior for first-century Christians living near Ephesus. He is the world’s only savior. There is no one else who can make God favorable toward you and forgive you for ignoring him, rebelling against him, rejecting his word, and doing what is wrong. There is no one else who will plead your case before God. No pastor or priest on earth can do that. No politician can. No celebrity or teacher or professor or employer is qualified to do that. The only one God the Father will listen to without fail is his Son Jesus, the perfect, righteous, great high priest. And Jesus only prays for his disciples. In John 17:9, Jesus told the Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In short, there is no other savior, and to be reconciled to God, you need to come to Jesus and have a right relationship with him. As much as we would love everyone to be saved, that is not going to happen. Many people simply don’t want to have a relationship with the true God. They want to have a god of their own design, a god they can create and manipulate and control.
But in the end, Jesus will save people of all kinds throughout the world. Revelation 5:9 says to Jesus, “you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Jesus died for the sins of his people. The free offer of the gospel should be made to all people, but not all will put their trust in Jesus and follow him.
Obviously, if this is true, then having a relationship with Jesus is of the utmost importance. How do we know that we are united to Jesus? How do we know that we are reconciled to the Father on the basis of Jesus’ works? Look at verses 3–6 again:
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
One way that we can know that we know Jesus is if we keep his commandments. If we say we know Jesus but we don’t do what he says, we’re liars. But if we keep his word, we can know that we are “in Christ.” If we’re united to Jesus, we should live like he did.
To clarify things a bit, the commandments of Jesus are not only his “red-letter words,” but also the words he delivered through his apostles (see 2 Pet. 3:2). Jesus spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the apostles wrote Scripture in the power of that same Spirit, so we shouldn’t drive a wedge between the two. Paul’s commands are ultimately Jesus’ commands. So are John’s. Generally, we can say that all of these commands can be summed up in loving God and loving others, though we must be careful to pay attention to the specifics of the ethical principles that run through the whole Bible, in particular the commands found in the New Testament.
Does this mean that only those who obey all Jesus’ commands all the time belong to Jesus? Well, John has already told us that everyone has a sin issue, and he assumes that we will sin and therefore continue to need our advocate, Jesus. So, he can’t mean that we must perfectly obey Jesus’ commandments in order to be united to him. He didn’t write, “Little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. For if you sin just once, you will be kicked out of God’s family.”
What John must mean is that true Christians are generally becoming more and more obedient to Jesus. We can’t say we’re Christians and then ignore Jesus and his apostles. People do that, of course, but they’re liars. The truth is not in them. If we know Jesus, we will listen to his word and do what he says. We may not obey perfectly, all the time, but there will be evidence that we obey.
Some of Jesus’ own words, found in John’s Gospel, shed light on this reality. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd,” and he calls his people his “sheep.” He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Then, later, he says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who belong to Jesus’ flock pay attention to what he says, and then they act.
Later, also in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who love him obey him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). What about the one who doesn’t keep Jesus’ words? “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24).
Those who are united to Jesus trust him, follow him, and love him, even if they do so imperfectly. There is no such thing, according to the Bible, as a person who is reconciled to God apart from Jesus. There is no such thing as a Christian who is not a follower of Jesus. There is no such thing as an obedient Christian who doesn’t love Jesus, or someone who loves Jesus but doesn’t obey him.
We do what Jesus says not because we’re trying to earn something from him. We obey because we love him. We trust our shepherd. We trust that his commandments are for our good. And so, we listen. We love Jesus because he first loved us and gave himself for us. We obey not only out of love, but also out of gratitude. In Christian ethics, motivation matters. Those who obey God trying to gain something from him don’t understand the gospel.
What this means is that true Christians continue to grow in obedience. We’ll never be perfect in this life, but we should more and more follow the example of Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Jesus knew Scripture, and so should we. Jesus prayed to the Father, and so should we. Jesus loved others and had compassion on those who were needy, and so should we. But, of course, Jesus is the God-man, completely perfect. We won’t be perfected until we’re with Jesus, living in a new creation. But we should aspire to grow.
John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of “Amazing Grace,” captured this well when he said, “I am not what I ought to be; but I am not what I once was. And it is by the grace of God that I am what I am.” If we’re honest, we must admit that we’re not yet what we ought to be. But if we’re Christians, we should be able to look back at our lives and say, “By the grace of God, I am not what I once was.”
If you are a Christian, start following Jesus. Start with the basics. Read the Bible regularly. Pray regularly. Meet with Christians regularly. Be part of a local church where you serve and are served by others. As you read the Bible and grow in your understanding, live out what you read. Start ordering your home according to Scripture. Husbands, you are the head of your home and should love your wives. Wives, honor and respect your husbands. Parents, raise your children with discipline and instruct them in the things of the Lord. Children, obey and honor your parents. Employees, work hard as if you’re working for God. Be honest. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be faithful to your God and your spouse (if you have one). If you’re not married, don’t have sexual contact with others. Love other people. Pay attention to the poor and needy around you. Be generous. Be careful what comes into your eyes and ears. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth.
These are all very basic things, but they’re all important. And we should do these things because they are good for us, because they’re pleasing to God, and because we love him. If you’re a Christian, you need to obey Jesus.
Now, if you’re here today and you’re not following Jesus this way, what are you waiting for? I promise you that there is no ultimate hope outside of Jesus. There is no relationship with God outside of Jesus. There is no deliverance from death and despair outside of Jesus. He is our only hope. If you want to know more about what it means to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.
One last word: All that talk of God’s wrath, and of sacrifices, may seem odd to you. I understand. However, that shows that God is serious about justice. God cares more about justice than we do. And living our lives for anything other than God is injustice. Living our lives for something or someone else actually harms us and it destroys God’s world. So, God is right to care about justice.
I want to close with these wonderful words by a theologian named David Jackman:
[God’s] wrath is neither an emotion nor a petulant fit of temper, but the settled conviction of righteousness in action to destroy both sin and the sinner. The glory of the gospel is that we have an advocate who pleads for mercy on the ground of his own righteous action when he died the death that we deserve to die. Once the penalty has been paid, there cannot be any further demand for the sinner to be punished. God has himself met our debt. He came in person to do so. The cross is not the Father punishing an innocent third party, the Son, for our sins. It is God taking to himself, in the person of the Son, all the punishment that his wrath justly demands, quenching its sword, satisfying its penalty and thus atoning for our sins.
- H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624. ↑
- Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179. ↑
- Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 85. Propitiation is mentioned also in Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; and 1 John 4:10. ↑
- See also Lev. 1:9; 2:1–2; 3:3, 5; 4:29, 31. ↑
- Quoted in David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 43. ↑
- David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 46–47. ↑
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 2:1-6. Christians should obey Jesus because they love him and want to follow his example. But if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who offered himself up as a sacrifice to pay for our sins.
Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 1:5-10. God is light and John urges his readers to walk in the light. That means being honest, letting God expose our sins for what they are, and walking in a way that is pleasing to God. We also have the great promise that those who turn to Jesus in faith will be cleansed from all their sin.
Pastor Brian Watson presents a message on church discipline. Correcting each other, holding each other accountable, and even confronting each other is good for us as individuals, it’s good for the church, and it’s good for Jesus’ reputation. Passages examined include Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 1 Timothy 5:19-20.