Slaves

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on August 26, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

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.[1]

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).[2]

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][3] regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6] 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:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [a slave], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.”[10]

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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Sarah Ruden, Paul among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (New York: Pantheon, 2010), 168.
  8. Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 279.
  9. Stark, For the Glory of God, 359.
  10. Ibid., 351.

 

I Have Not Come to Call the Righteous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

Tempted

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on January 28, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

“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 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ ” And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, 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. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God,
and him only shall you serve.’”

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,’

11 and

“‘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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.”[5] 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.[6]

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.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. 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).
  3. You can find all those sermons at https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  4. 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.
  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.”
  6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 132.

 

Tempted (Luke 4:1-13)

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.

The Image of God

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.

We Have an Advocate (1 John 2:1-6)

This sermon was preached on May 7, 2017 by Brian Watson.
Sermon recording
PDF of sermon typescript

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.”[1] 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. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.[5]

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:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 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.”[6] 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.[7]

 Notes

  1. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179.
  4. 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.
  5. See also Lev. 1:9; 2:1–2; 3:3, 5; 4:29, 31.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

 

We Have an Advocate (1 John 2:1-6)

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.

Walk in the Light (1 John 1:5-10)

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.

On Discipline

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.