In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.
As you can see, I now wear glasses. At the end of last year, it became clear to me how I wasn’t seeing things clearly. I had a hard time reading any text that was about ten or fifteen feet away. Kathy and I were away one weekend, and we visited a church that projects the lyrics of songs on screens, and I had a hard time reading the words. At first, I thought, “Why did they choose such a small font?” But then Kathy said she had no problem reading the words. Then I noticed while I was in a classroom that I had a hard time reading the names of my fellow students, which were printed in fairly large print, on cards where they were seated. So, I finally got an eye exam and I got glasses.
What I didn’t realize was that I was missing out on a lot of other details in the distance, like the branches of trees. I could see the trees, of course, but I couldn’t make out all the branches within the trees. The trees were a bit blurry. The past few weeks I’ve driven in and out of Boston, and I now can see all the definition of all the buildings in the city.
I used to have better eyesight, but over time, particularly the last couple of years, it has become worse. So, I was slowly able to recognize how my vision had become worse. But some people start out with bad eyesight. When I told a friend I had glasses, he said he is nearsighted, and he refused to get glasses for years. He thought that everyone had a hard time seeing things in the distance. If you start out with bad eyesight, you wouldn’t know what you’re missing until you get glasses or contacts. Then, you can see things as they really are.
In a similar way, we don’t start out life seeing reality clearly. I’m not talking about literal vision. I’m talking about perception. We don’t perceive all that there is to life. We certainly don’t understand life very well. What we need is a set of glasses, metaphorically speaking, that will enable us to see reality. And the Bible is that set of glasses. The Bible is God’s written word, which tells us what he is like, what the world is, who we are, what’s gone wrong with the world and us, and how things can be fixed. If we don’t see the world through the lens of the Bible, we won’t reality clearly. Of course, we’ll see important things; we’re not completely blind. But there are things that are real, and things that are really important, that we won’t see at all unless we view the world through a biblical worldview.
So, today, I want us to slip on a pair of biblical glasses to see four realities. We’re continuing in the Gospel of Luke, which we have been studying for some time now. And we’re going to read Luke 11:14–36 today. As we do that, we’re going to see four things. One, supernatural good and evil are real. There really is a God and there really is a devil and his demons. Two, we’ll see that Jesus is real and we’ll see something about his identity. Three, there is no spiritual neutrality. Four, there is no neutral response to Jesus, and we’ll see what it looks like to respond to him positively.
So, keep those four things in mind as I read today’s passage. The passage may seem like it’s drawing together some disjointed sayings. That’s probably because our Bible translations have the passage broken up into smaller sections. You can ignore those subheadings that the Bible editors put there. Those subheadings aren’t part of the original text, and while sometimes they can help, sometimes they just get in the way.
Let’s now read Luke 11:14–36:
14 Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; 22 but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25 And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
27 As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
29 When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
33 “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. 34 Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. 35 Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. 36 If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”
The first reality we see through the lens of the Bible is that there is a supernatural good, God, and there is supernatural (or preternatural) evil, Satan, who is called Beelzebul here. That name, Beelzebul, refers back to Baal-Zebub, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 1. He is called “the god of Ekron,” one of the Philistine cities (2 Kgs. 1:2–3, 6, 16). The name means “Lord of the flies.” You may not understand any of that if you’re not familiar with the Bible, but if you’re familiar with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you might recognize “Beelzebub.” Beelzebul might mean “Lord of the dwelling place (or temple).” But what matters is it’s a reference to Satan, the devil.
And in this passage, we read about demons, or unclean spirits. Jesus casts a demon out of a man. The demon had caused the man to be mute, unable to speak. Jesus also tells a cautionary tale about unclean spirits. All of this might seem quite strange, because we don’t see demons, just as we don’t see God or the devil. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. We certainly see the effects of God and Satan.
This discussion about good and evil leads us to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which is the second reality the Bible allows us to see. The question of Jesus’ identity keeps coming up in Luke’s Gospel. The four Gospels of the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are biographies of Jesus. But they’re not really like modern biographies, which generally tell about every age of a person’s life. These biographies focus mostly on two or three years of Jesus’ life, and they spend an inordinate amount of time talking about one particular week of Jesus’ life, the week that ended with his death. Luke clearly wants his readers to know who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do during that period of time.
So, the question of Jesus’ identity is brought up once again. We see that Jesus is able to heal the man who was demon-oppressed. But some people, probably Jewish religious leaders, accused Jesus of doing the work of Satan. Jesus points out that this accusation makes no sense. Why would Satan drive out his own demons? Jesus says that every kingdom divided against itself falls—that’s true whether the kingdom is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Israel, or the kingdom of the devil. Jesus points out how illogical they are being.
Then, Jesus asks, “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” He’s referring to other Jewish exorcists. He’s probably referring to his own disciples, who were given the authority to cast out demons (Luke 9:1; 10:17). They will judge Israel (Matt. 19:28). His point is that if all the other Jewish exorcists are casting out demons by the power of God, then so is he. Or, to put it the other way around, if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of Satan, then so are the other Jewish exorcists. You can’t have it both ways.
But Jesus says that he isn’t casting out demons by the power of Satan. Instead, what he’s doing is proof that the kingdom of God has come. He is driving out demons “by the finger of God.” That’s an interesting phrase. In Matthew’s Gospel, in a parallel passage, Jesus says he casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” (Matt. 12:28). So, the “finger of God” is an anthropomorphic way of referring to the Holy Spirit. But Luke uses the “finger of God” to refer back to something in Israel’s history. In the days of Moses, God delivered the Israelites out of slavery through miracles. Moses would perform some action with his staff, and miracles would happen. What’s interesting is that the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, had magicians who could also do miraculous works. They weren’t doing these things by the power of the Holy Spirit, but by some demonic force. (That, by the way, shows that everything that appears miraculous is not from God. That’s why we have to be careful about paying too much attention to miracles.) But there were times when Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t do what Moses did. And at one of those points, the magicians say, “This is the finger of God” (Exod. 8:19). We’re also told that the Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18; Deut. 9:10).
What that means is that Jesus is doing the work of God. He is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miracles, signs that show that he is from God. And, just as the Holy Spirit wrote the Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit is revealing who Jesus is. He’s a man, but he’s not just a man. Luke’s Gospel makes it clear that he is the Son of God. He is divine, eternal. As God, he has always existed. Over two thousand years ago, he added a human nature to himself, becoming a baby in a virgin’s womb. That miracle, too, was brought about by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the “strong man” who can bind Satan, attacking him, overpowering him, stripping him of his armor, and dividing his spoils. Jesus came to drive back the devil, to wrest the world away from Satan’s hold, to put an end to evil. John, an apostle, said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
I’ll say more about how Jesus does that, and a little more about who Jesus is and what he came to do, a bit later. But first I want to point out something interesting. It’s no surprise that the Bible says that Jesus could work wonders. We would expect that. Most of what we know about Jesus is found in the Bible, and the Bible presents Jesus as the God-man, the Savior, the Lord, and a miracle worker. But we do have some other information about Jesus outside of the Bible. The Roman sources about Jesus affirmed that he lived and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. There are a couple of references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of writings by Jewish rabbis. The Talmud was put together a few hundred years after Jesus. It’s not the Bible, so we can’t view it as completely true and authoritative. But it does refer to Jesus as a worker of wonders. These statements were written by people who didn’t believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed king of the Jews. So, one claims that, “Jesus the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray” (Sanhedrin 107b). Another says, “He has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy” (Sanhedrin 43a). Those rabbis were wrong to say that Jesus led Israel astray. But what’s interesting is that everyone seems to acknowledge that Jesus worked miracles and that he was an exorcist. The only dispute is whether he came from God or Satan. The claim that he came from Satan simply doesn’t make sense. The way that Jesus lived and the things he taught could never come from the prince of demons.
Before we move on to the third reality we’ll see this morning, we should note two more things about Jesus’ identity. First, he claims to be greater than Jonah, one of Israel’s prophets. If you don’t know anything about Jonah other than a whale (or, as the Bible puts it, a great fish), then join us next Sunday at 9:15. We’re currently studying the book of Jonah. And Jesus claims to be greater than Solomon, one of Israel’s more famous kings, and a man known for his great wisdom. Second, Jesus implies that he is related to being enlightened. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself “the light of the world” (John 8:12), the one who came to reveal our true condition, to lead us out of darkness, and into life. I’ll say more about these things in a moment.
The third reality we see is that there is no spiritual neutrality. That’s his point in the little parable found in verses 24–26. Jesus describes a situation in which an unclean spirit is cast out of a person. If that person doesn’t have the Holy Spirit filling the vacuum, the demon will return with seven more. I don’t think he’s saying that this is exactly how all exorcisms work. The point is that it’s not enough to simply cast out evil. One must be filled with the good. It’s not enough to avoid doing “bad things,” whatever you think those bad things are. If you aren’t turning to Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, you open yourself up to spiritual attacks from the enemy. And you will be guided by one spirit or another. Some people say they’re spiritual but not religious. I have no doubt about that. Everyone is spiritual; the only question is whether that spirit is the Holy Spirit or an evil spirit. We will either be with God or against him. We will be on one side of the dividing line or another.
In a similar way, Jesus says that we will either be filled with darkness or light. We have to look to a light that is outside of us. And that implies that all of us start out filled with darkness. If we look to the light, our whole body will be full of light. But we can only do this if we have healthy eyes, eyes that can see the truth clearly. If we don’t have eyes to see, we will be full of darkness. Jesus urges us to come to the light, to look to it and trust it. What Jesus doesn’t say here is that he himself is the light. But he implies that he is the one that we have to look at, the one we must respond to.
And that brings me to the fourth reality we see here. Just as there is no neutral position spiritually speaking, there is no neutral response to him. He explicitly says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” You are either with Jesus or against him. If you’re with him, you’re doing the work of gathering people into God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” Jesus came to call people into that kingdom, and to show that he himself is King. And Jesus uses his followers to gather people, the way a farmer gathers a harvest (Luke 10:2). If you’re not working to know Jesus and to make him known, you’re working against him. You’re allowing people to be scattered, apart from God, and therefore apart from true life and hope. The key point is that you are either under the King’s rule, doing his work, or you’re not. There’s simply no fence-sitting when it comes to Jesus.
To be against Jesus, you don’t have to be hostile to Christianity. You don’t have to be an atheist. If you’re apathetic, not really interested in following Jesus, you’re against him. So many people are simply apathetic to Jesus. I see this every Easter. On Easter, which is four weeks away, we’ll probably have twice as many people here. And that’s good. I encourage you to invite people to come here, to join us in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for more people to hear about Jesus. But so many who come will be apathetic. They may enjoy the service to some extent, but they won’t pursue a relationship with Jesus. They won’t read the Bible, pray, and worship with other Christians. They likely won’t obey other commandments of Jesus, ones that are demanding. It’s heartbreaking, really.
What does a right response to Jesus look like? Jesus gives us a couple of examples. First, he refers to Jonah. There were people who wanted to see a sign from Jesus, as though Jesus hadn’t performed enough miracles already. Jesus knew their hearts. He knew that some people will never have enough proof to believe. They will demand proof after proof after proof and never put their trust in him. They want to be in control. So, Jesus says that no other sign will be given to them other than the sign of Jonah. In this case, he probably is referring to Jonah’s preaching. Jonah was sent to one of Israel’s enemies, Assyria, specifically to the city of Nineveh, in order to tell them God’s judgment would come upon them for their evil deeds. When Jonah relayed that message to the people of Nineveh, they repented. They responded positively to Jonah’s message. In a similar way, the Queen of the south, or the Queen of Sheba, came from a great distance to see Solomon. She heard his wisdom and was amazed. She had a positive response to Solomon. Jesus says these people will rise up on the day of judgment, and they will judge the unbelieving Jewish people standing in front of Jesus.
This would have been an amazing thing for these Jewish religious leaders to hear. These Gentiles had faith, and they would judge Jewish people, the supposed “chosen people of God.” God did choose the Israelites as his people. They were rescued by God, delivered out of slavery. They received his law and many of his blessings. But that doesn’t mean that all of them believed and had a right relationship with God. No one is born with a right relationship with God. We must respond to him positively. And we do that by responding positively to Jesus.
What do people who respond positively to Jesus do? Look at verses 27 and 28. In the middle of Jesus’ teaching, a woman interrupts Jesus by yelling, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” In other words, “Jesus, your mother is blessed to have you as a child.” She’s acknowledging that Jesus is great. But Jesus doesn’t say, “You’re right, Mary is blessed.” And if ever there were a time when Jesus would say something about Mary being sinless, which is what Catholics believe, he would have said it here. But he doesn’t say that. What he says is, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” What does it look like to trust Jesus? You believe that he speaks the words of God, and you do what he tells you to do.
Now, this does not mean that we earn a right standing with God. The Bible’s message is that we cannot do that, because our obedience is always imperfect, mixed not only with moments of disobedience, but also bad motives. We can only receive a right relationship with God by trusting in Jesus, trusting that he alone has fulfilled all of God’s righteous demands and that he died on the cross by bearing the penalty for our sin. But if we truly trust Jesus in that way, we’ll obey him. Those who receive God’s blessings also come under his rule. You can’t be a Christian and ignore what Jesus says. In that case, you’re not looking to the light. Instead, you’re remaining in darkness.
Jesus came to save his people, and to destroy the works of the devil. But he hasn’t fully destroyed those works yet. Satan is still active, and we obviously experience evil all around us and even within us. Jesus will come again, sometime in the future, and he will completely defeat Satan. The strong man will not only bind the devil, but he will destroy him. But Jesus came the first time to remove Satan’s grip on us. And he did that not by acting as a strong man. Instead, he let himself be bound. Though he was perfectly righteous, completely sinless, people didn’t believe him. They hated him. They didn’t like what he said, and they were threatened by what he was doing. So, they bound him and killed him under false charges. But this was ultimately God’s plan. Jesus allowed this to happen, because he knew that that he had to suffer the punishment that we deserve. Jesus died on the cross, and when he did that, he endured not just physical pain and death, but spiritual pain and death. He endured God’s wrath. The light of the world was submerged into the greatest darkness in order to bring us into the light. And Jesus then rose from the grave to show that he satisfied God’s demands, that he has power of sin and death, and that all who come to him will be raised from the dead when he comes again in glory.
So, what do we do with this information? We’ve slipped on our biblical glasses and seen some things that we couldn’t otherwise see. So what?
We should consider these four realities. God is real. And so is Satan. Furthermore, so is Jesus. And there is no neutral spiritual ground. We will either be with Jesus or against him. So, which side are we on?
I realize that many people find the idea of no neutrality off-putting, to say the least. Some people think that whole “we’re either with Jesus or against him” business to be very narrow-minded. They would probably say, “That’s far too black and white. The real world is full of grays.” I do believe that reality is often quite complex, and there are many situations where things are not so black and white. But just because there’s a lot of gray doesn’t mean there is no black and white. Many truths are precise and even narrow. Two plus two is four, not three or five or any number. All species of living things are either human beings or not. There are times when we can very neatly say that people are in this group or that. For example, you’re either an American citizen, or you’re not.
As I was thinking about this, I thought of the following image. We all know about the Titanic. I’m sure a lot of us saw the movie of the same name that came out in the late ’90s. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler: A large ship hits an iceberg, the ship is destroyed, and a lot of people die. There were some lifeboats, and people who got on those lifeboats lived. But those who didn’t died. Even those who had lifejackets didn’t survive, because they were in the frigid waters of the northern Atlantic. So, you were either on a boat or you were dead. There was no neutral ground, no third place.
And that is a good way of imagining what the Bible tells us. God made a good world, which we might liken to a luxury liner. Things were fine on board. But then a disaster happened. The ship struck the iceberg of sin. Like an iceberg, sin might not seem so dangerous on the surface. But sin is deep and dangerous. It is a failure to love, trust, worship, and obey God the way that we should. And when the first human beings sinned, the luxury liner that God created was ruined. It’s been sinking ever since. And everyone who has ever lived is either plunging to their death or they’re getting on the lifeboat. That lifeboat is God himself, and now that Jesus has been revealed, it is Jesus. He is the only place to find refuge.
If someone rescued you from frigid waters, in which you would surely die, and put you on their boat, you would listen to them. If a captain of a ship found you drowning and he pulled you on to his ship, you probably would be grateful and while you’re on his ship, you would abide by his rules. The same is true of Jesus. If we have truly come to know him, if we’ve been pulled onto his ship, not by our own efforts, but by his, then we will be thankful, and we will listen to our captain and do what he says.
But there are many others who aren’t on that lifeboat yet. They’re on the ship that’s sinking and think everything is fine. They think, “Oh, the ship has some trouble, but we’ll find a way to patch it up someday.” Some people are in the water, thinking that they can save themselves because they’re strong swimmers. Those who think there’s nothing to be saved from will be lost. Those who think they can save themselves will be lost. But those who fix their eyes on the light, who trust that Jesus is their only hope, find salvation, and their lives are changed forever.
If you haven’t looked to the light, if you haven’t gotten on board the only lifeboat there is, then I urge you to do so now. If you’re already on board, listen to your captain. Abide by his rules. Don’t just be hearers of the word, but also be doers. And if you’re on board, look around. There are many people who are drowning. They are scattered in dangerous waters. Will you gather them? Will you try to rescue them? Do you realize they are truly lost? A nice person who doesn’t know Jesus is a drowning person who cannot save herself. Not one of us can save ourselves through our own efforts. The only hope is Jesus.
To use a different metaphor, God’s kingdom has come, and Jesus is the gate, the door, to that kingdom. He’s the only way in. Let us make sure we are in that kingdom and that we obey the King. And let us bring others along with us, urging them to find shelter in a kingdom of love, light, and life.
- All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- That’s a reference to the song by the band Queen. The line from the song, “Beelzebub has a devil set aside for me,” doesn’t quite back sense, unless we think of “devil” as a demon. ↑
- For more information on sources about Jesus, see https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus. ↑
- Quoted in Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 214. ↑
- Vaughan Roberts uses this definition, based on one created by Graeme Goldsworthy, repeatedly in his book, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002). ↑
The Bible is a like a set of glasses that allows us to see realities we couldn’t otherwise see. Luke 11:14-36 shows us four realities: Good and evil are real, Jesus is real, there is no spiritual neutrality, and there is no neutral response to Jesus. Find out what Jesus came to do and how to respond to him rightly. Brian Watson preached this message on March 24, 2019.
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and he asks his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. This is the heart of true Christianity. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon, based on Luke 9:18-27, on February 3, 2019.
Jesus asks his disciples to do the impossible, and both Jesus and his followers faced (and still face) opposition. Yet the good news it that Jesus makes the impossible possible. Brian Watson preached this sermon on Luke 9:1-17 on January 27, 2019.
Paul urges the church to be of one mind, but this can only happen if we’re in Christ, who saved those who turn to him in faith and serves as their example. Pastor Brian Watson preached this sermon on November 25, 2018.
Jesus divides people into two groups: those who produce good fruit by listening to his words, and those who produce bad fruit by refusing to hear him and do what he says. People in the first group build their houses on the solid ground, but those in the second group are like those who build a house without a foundation. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:43-49.
Jesus teaches us to do something unnatural: we are supposed to love our enemies and to give to those who cannot pay us back. Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 6:27-36, recorded on October 7, 2018.
How are you feeling today? Do you feel well rested? In general, does your life feel at rest, or do you feel anxious? Do you feel at peace or ill at ease in this world?
Today we’re picking up our sermon series in the Gospel of Luke, after taking a six-month break. If you weren’t here months ago, you can catch up on this series by visiting wbcommunity.org/luke. This is a good time to get to know the true Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible.
This is what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke is writing this biography of Jesus to provide an orderly account of the story of Jesus. He says his writing is based on what he has received from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). Luke is writing history, but it’s a theological history. He wants us to know what God has done in and through Jesus.
Luke tells us that Jesus had supernatural origins. His miraculous conception by a virgin was foretold by the angel Gabriel. Right at the beginning of this story, we’re told that Jesus is more than just a man. Gabriel tells Mary,
32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
Luke tells us that Jesus grew and he gives us a brief snapshot of Jesus at age 12. When he is fully grown, Jesus is baptized, an event that begins his public ministry. When he is baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon him like a dove, and the voice of God the Father says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). There are echoes here of the beginning of the Bible. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of creation, he hovers over these waters, where the Word of God is present. Just as God created a universe out of nothing, he has created a new man out of “nothing” (a virgin’s womb). Just as God pronounced a blessing over the first creation, calling it “very good,” God pronounces a blessing over this new creation. God has stepped into the universe that he has made and Jesus, the God-man, will fix what is broken in the first creation.
He does this in part by withstanding the devil’s temptations. Luke tells us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, when Satan tempted him. Jesus stands up to Satan’s attacks by quoting Scripture back to him. Jesus is the only one who doesn’t give in to evil.
Then we see Jesus begin his public ministry. He does this by teaching and by healing. He teaches in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, telling those who are gathered that he fulfills the Old Testament. But he is not well received. We see that Jesus’ teaching is divisive, and he gets run out of his hometown.
Jesus heals people who had various diseases and he heals people who were under the influence of unclean spirits, or demons. This shows that Jesus attacks the results of evil in the world and evil itself. According to the Bible, all bad things in the world are the result, directly or indirectly, of the presence of sin in the world. Angels and people have rebelled against God, and as a result, God has given the world over to things like diseases and death. But God hasn’t given up on the world. Jesus’ becoming a man is God’s rescue mission to save a lost world. And Jesus’ miracles indicate that he has the power to fix what is broken.
We also have seen Jesus call his first disciples and get into various controversies with some of the religious leaders in his day. These are usually the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that was devoted to a strict interpretation of the law that God gave Israel in the Old Testament. Jesus hung out with people who were regarded as particularly sinful. This was controversial. But he called them to a new way of life, a better life. And Jesus even claims that he has the power to forgive sins.
Today, as we begin Luke 6, we see those controversies continue. We’ll see two controversies over the Sabbath. Let’s first read Luke 6:1–5:
1 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
To understand what’s happening here, we need to understand what the Bible says about the Sabbath. So, let’s take a quick tour of what the Old Testament says about the Sabbath.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then, we see God creates, or orders and arranges, his creation. Over six days, God establishes realms of sky and sea and land and he fills them. There are a lot of different views on whether those days are twenty-four periods or longer ages, or if the week is analogous, but not exactly equivalent, to our week. But we won’t get into that today. What we do want to see is that on the seventh day, God rests. This is Genesis 2:1–3:
1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
This doesn’t mean that God was really tired from those six days and need a break. It meant that his work of creating and arranging was done. God had established the world to be his temple, a theater for his glory, and he was done. He could now sit on his throne, as it were. The drama of the Bible’s big story could now begin.
This seventh day of rest established a pattern for Israel. In fact, God commands Israel to rest on every seventh day in honor of the pattern he established at creation. The Sabbath is so important that it is part of the Ten Commandments. This is the fourth commandment, found in Exodus 20:8–11:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The word “Sabbath” basically means rest. It was also a day of worship, a “holy convocation” (Lev. 23:3). Holy means “distinct, withheld from ordinary use, treated with special care,” the opposite of “profane” or “common.” The seventh day was a “Sabbath to the Lord,” a day that belonged to God (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10; 31:15). The Israelites were supposed to take a break from their regular work. This taught them to trust in God’s provision and to realize that they were not in control of time.
The Sabbath reminded the Israelites both of creation and salvation. Exodus 20 mentions creation. The Ten Commandments are also given in Deuteronomy 5. There, we are told another reason why Israel should observe the Sabbath: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). When God rescued the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he created a new people, a people who could rest, instead of working as slaves. The Sabbath is the link between creation and salvation.
The Sabbath was so important that it was a sign of the covenant (Exod. 31:12–17; Ezek. 20:12), just as the rainbow was the sign of the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 9:12–17), and circumcision was the sign of the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 17:11). We may not understand the word “covenant” very well, but it’s sort of like a treaty. It’s similar to a marriage contract. It’s something that binds two parties together and sets the terms for that relationship. In this case, the covenant was how God would relate to his people and how they would relate to him. It spelled out what was expected of God’s people. The Ten Commandments were like the founding principles of Israel, something similar to the Bill of Rights. But instead of rights, the Ten Commandments told Israel what God expected of them.
Observing the Sabbath was so important that the punishment for breaking it was death (Exod. 31:14–15; see the story in Num. 15:32–36). Breaking the Sabbath was associated with idolatry, the worship of false gods (Lev. 19:3–4; Ezek. 20:16–24). It seems that breaking the Sabbath was one of the reasons why Israel went into exile (2 Chron. 36:21; Jer. 17:19–27; 25:11–12; Ezek. 20:12–24). After Israel returned from exile, the Sabbath was one of the concerns of Nehemiah.
By the time of Jesus’ first coming, Sabbath observation was one of three badges of Jewish national identity, along with circumcision and dietary laws. Keeping the Sabbath had become synonymous with Judaism. It set Jews apart from the people of other nations and religions. On the Sabbath day, Jews met in synagogues for prayer and Scripture readings. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws that accumulated over time, forbade thirty-nine activities on the Sabbath day.
So, that’s a quick study of the Sabbath in the Old Testament.
Now, let’s go back to Luke 6:1–5. Jesus and his disciples were going through a field on the Sabbath. They took some grain, rubbed it in their hands to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff, and ate. This is hardly work, but according to strict Jewish interpretations of the law, this violated the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath. This is a serious charge. Yet Jesus doesn’t answer directly. As he often does, he asks a question. He reminds them of a story from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 21:1–6). The story was about David, the greatest king of Israel. Before David became king, was on the run from Saul, the first king of Israel, who was jealous of David and who wanted to kill him. David had to flee from Saul just to stay alive. At one point, David and his men were so hungry that they ate the bread of the Presence, which was bread that was in the tabernacle, the holy place where God dwelled among Israel. This bread was holy. It symbolized Israel eating in God’s presence. It was bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Now, Jesus brings this up and challenges the Pharisees to say that David was wrong. The implication is that David didn’t do wrong, and just as David didn’t do anything wrong by eating that bread, because he was hungry, Jesus and his disciples didn’t do anything wrong by eating some grain that they “worked” for on the Sabbath.
Jesus doesn’t deny that there might have been some violation of the Sabbath, at least according to the way the Pharisees understood the law. Instead, he seems to say that when two principles clash, some things are more important than others. David and his men were starving. So, the priest decided it was okay to let them eat holy bread. It was more important to support these men than to uphold laws regarding the bread. Jesus and his disciples were traveling and need some sustenance. The grain was there for the plucking. In Mark’s telling of this passage, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath was supposed to help people, not hurt them.
The Sabbath was for the benefit of the Israelites. It told them to rest in God’s provision, to trust in him. It wouldn’t make sense for Sabbath observance to put them in harm’s way. And there must have been some understanding of this. Sometimes, two laws clash, even two biblical laws. Israelite boys were supposed to be circumcised on the eight day. If a boy was born on a Sabbath, he would have to be circumcised on the following Sabbath day. Either that doesn’t count as work, or it does and you violate the Sabbath commandment, or you circumcise the boy on the seventh or ninth day, thus violating another commandment. Sometimes, laws must bend. What’s important in those cases is upholding the spirit of the law.
Here’s an example we can relate to: We know that lying is wrong. But what if you’re living in Europe in the early 1940s, you’re hiding Jewish people in your attic or your basement, and Nazis come to your door, asking if any Jews are there. What do you do? Do you lie and save lives, or do you tell the truth and let them be led to slaughter? I know what I would do.
Mature Christian thinking understands this. There are times when we feel like two moral principles are clashing against each other, and we have to find ways to accommodate the spirit of both of those principles. For example, we’re called to welcome the sinner, but we have to have safeguards against the destructive power of sin. An abusive person can be forgiven and yet there can still be consequences for that person’s behavior.
In this passage, however, Jesus does something besides suggesting that laws can bend. He says that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. “Lord” could be used to address people of authority, but it was also the way God’s name, Yahweh, was translated from Hebrew into Greek. And Jesus says he is Lord of the Sabbath. That sounds like he’s making a claim to be God. After all, the Sabbath was the “Sabbath to the Lord” (Exod. 16:23, 25; 20:10). Jesus is saying it’s his. He owns the Sabbath. And if it’s his, he can do what he wants with it. This should have given the Pharisees pause. Jesus is coming quite close to saying he’s God.
Let’s look at the next paragraph, Luke 6:6–11.
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It’s another Sunday, not necessarily the very next one. The Gospel writers weren’t terribly concerned about precise chronology. Luke (and Matthew in Matthew 12 and Mark in Mark 2) wants us to see the connections between these two Sabbaths. On this one, Jesus enters a synagogue and teaches. There happens to be a man with a withered hand there. His hand must have been crippled, his muscles atrophied. Perhaps he had suffered some kind of accident in the past, or perhaps he had a birth defect. The Pharisees and the scribes, the strict religious leaders of the day who were so concerned about how to follow the Old Testament law, carefully watched what Jesus would do. They were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They would have loved to have some dirt on him, to put him on trial and put an end to him.
Before I go on, notice the irony. This is a day of a rest, a day of worship. And what do the religious leaders do? They work at trying to capture Jesus in some violation. They aren’t thinking about God; no, they are looking for a way to trip Jesus up. Who are the ones violating the Sabbath? And who is the one who is maintaining the spirit of the law?
Jesus asks the crippled man to come to him, and then he asks a rhetorical question: “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Who could argue with that? Later in Luke’s Gospel, during another Sabbath controversy, Jesus will ask, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5). Wouldn’t you help a person or even an animal that was in trouble, even if it were on a Sabbath?
Confident that no one will argue against healing on the Sabbath, Jesus then asks the man to stretch out his hand. The man does, and when he does, his hand was healed. The man listens to Jesus’ voice, does what Jesus tells him to do, and then finds healing. We could say the man had faith that Jesus could heal him, he responded, and Jesus healed him.
One thing we can learn from this episode is that the Sabbath was intended for the good of humanity. It is better to do good than to allow one to suffer.
But think about this: the man with the withered hand was not in dire need of healing. Jesus could have waited until after the Sabbath to heal him, but Jesus intentionally heals him on the Sabbath, even though this wasn’t an emergency. In healing on the Sabbath, he was making a point. To understand the point, we need to think about the relationship between sin and Sabbath. In the Gospels, healing is a physical symbol of the salvation that Jesus offers. All physical problems come from sin, whether directly or indirectly. The reason why anyone gets sick is because the world is tainted by sin, a powerful force of rebellion that entered into the world when the first human beings decided not to trust and obey God. Sin violated the first Sabbath.
Think back to the original Sabbath, the one in Genesis 2. There was nothing but peace and rest. The Sabbath that God commanded Israel to observe was a taste of that peace and rest. It was almost a way of recapturing the original harmony of the world before sin corrupted it. But the Sabbath also pointed to one who would come, a descendant of Eve, of Abraham, of Judah, and of David. It pointed to the Prince of Peace, the only one who can bring rest, the only one who can restore us to harmony with God.
The four Gospels that we have in the Bible have similar material, particularly Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew’s Gospel, right before these two Sabbath controversies that we’re reading about today, Jesus said,
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28–30).
The fact that this saying of Jesus comes right before his actions on the Sabbath shows us that Jesus is the true Sabbath. He fulfills the Sabbath. He is one who gives us rest.
But how does Jesus do that?
In the Gospel of Luke, there are seven different Sabbaths. There were two in chapter 4 (Luke 4:16, 31) and now we’ve seen two in chapter 6. One more appears in chapter 13 (Luke 13:10) and another one comes in chapter 14 (Luke 14:1). I suppose there’s no accident that there are seven Sabbaths in Luke’s Gospel. Seven is the number of completion or perfection, and the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week. The seventh Sabbath in Luke is the one when Jesus was in the tomb, after he died on the cross. He was killed on Friday, the sixth day of the week, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, which began on Friday at sundown. He rested in the tomb on the seventh day of the week, after he completed his work. Remember, on the cross Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His work, at least in part, was to come and die for our sins. He completed that work in full when he died on the cross. There is nothing that you and I can do to pay for our sins. Our crimes against God are so great that only the death of the Son of God can pay for our sins. And we can have our sins paid for if we simply trust in Jesus. He asks us to stretch out our arm to him and if we do that, trusting that he alone can make us right with God, we are healed. No amount of law-keeping makes anyone more righteous. We can’t fix ourselves. The only way we can be healed is to rest from our striving to save ourselves and to let God save us. Only Jesus can remove our sin and make us right with God. Only Jesus can get us to heaven. Only Jesus can make us live with God forever.
After Jesus died on the sixth day and rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day, he rose from the grave on the eighth day. Or, we might say that he rose from the grave on the first day of a new week, a new era. For these reasons and others, I believe that Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath for us, just as he fulfilled the demands of the Old Testament law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). In the book of Colossians, the apostle Paul writes,
16 Therefore [because Jesus died for our sins and has given us new hearts—see Col. 2:6–15] let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16–17).
The Old Testament Sabbath was meant to point Israel to Jesus. It foreshadowed the rest that only he can give. But now that Jesus has come, we don’t need to keep the Sabbath in the way that Israel did. To keep the Sabbath today is to stop striving to save yourself and to start resting in the give of salvation that Jesus has given you.
When Jesus rose from the grave, he was the first installment of a new creation. He established something new. His death inaugurated a new covenant. This new deal promises that God’s people will be forgiven of sin, they will have his law written on their hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, and they will truly know him. Jesus’ resurrection also promises new life. We don’t feel completely at rest in this life. We struggle, and we die. But a day is coming when Jesus will return, when all who have trusted in him will be raised from the grave in bodies that can never die. At that time, God’s people will live with God forever in a recreated, or renewed world. They will experience perfect rest.
Again, we can experience some of that rest now, but we also look forward to the ultimate rest that will come when Jesus returns to Earth, when he establishes a new creation. That’s why the author of Hebrews says, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9–10). That means we rest from trying to earn our salvation. But we must also work. Jesus said that God is always working (John 5:17). It’s not as though God stopped working on the original seventh day. He always upholds the universe. If God didn’t do that, things would cease to exist. So, even though we rest in one sense, we also continue to work. We don’t work to earn something from God, but we work because we are thankful, because we love God and he has given us work to do. So, we work and rest, and we urge other people to find rest in Jesus.
The Sabbath is a reminder that each person is spiritually restless and that the only rest available to satisfy our souls is offered by Jesus, who beckons the weary to come to him. Augustine understood this reality when he prayed to the Lord, “You stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Nothing else in this world can give our restless souls rest. But in order to receive true rest, we must give up. We must stop working. We must trust that God will provide for us. We must realize that Jesus is our Boss, our Master, our King, and our Lord—the Lord of the Sabbath.
The religious leaders “were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Matthew says, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matt. 12:14). How do you respond to Jesus? If you’re not resting him, I urge you to do so now. If you don’t truly know Jesus as your Lord, I would love to talk with you. But for now, let’s pray.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Mark F. Rooker, The Ten Commandments: Ethics for the Twenty-First Century. New American Commentary in Bible and Theology, ed. E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 87. ↑
- Nehemiah recalls the giving of the Sabbath in his prayer of confession (Neh. 9:14) and he states that no buying or selling should be done on the Sabbath (10:31). When he discovers that the Sabbath commandment was being broken, he confronted the leaders of the people and then made sure the gates of the city were shut on that holy day, so that no buying or selling of goods could be done (13:15–22). He likely did not want the people to be exiled again for their lack of observing this important commandment. ↑
- Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 49. ↑
- Rooker, The Ten Commandments, 94–95. ↑
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3. ↑
Jesus clashes with the religious leaders of his time on two Sabbath days. Find out how Jesus fulfills the Sabbath and gives us true rest. Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 6:1-11, recorded on September 16, 2018.
I don’t know about you, but I love superhero movies. Perhaps that’s because superhero movies have clear villains who need to be defeated, and the heroes, however flawed they might be, prevail in the end. It’s nice to see good defeat evil.
It used to be that superheroes worked alone. Think of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, or the first Batman movie starring Michael Keaton. More recently, however, superheroes work together in teams. We’ve seen this in the X-Men movies and the Avengers movies and in Justice League, which features Batman and Wonder Woman, among others. These superhero movies have many different heroes coming together, each one using his or her superpowers to fight against a supervillain. The drama in these movies is not necessarily whether they will win; after all, the good guys always win in these movies. The drama comes from how the superheroes will work together. We, the members of the audience, wonder whether the superheroes will set aside their pride and coordinate their efforts, each using his or her strengths, in order to work together.
In one of the most recent of these movies, Avengers: Infinity War, one of the heroes acts selfishly. I don’t want to spoil the plot of the movie, so I’ll simply say that at one point some of the heroes are in a position to thwart the otherworldly villain named Thanos. The heroes are coordinating their efforts, working together to beat the bad guy, when one of the heroes lets his emotions get the better of him. And then Thanos gets away from their grasp.
These movies teach the importance of teamwork. Now, I realize not everyone may like superhero movies. But the same principles apply in other areas of life. Sports teams can have great athletes, but if they don’t work together, those teams won’t win. Coordinated teamwork is required in music, in the workplace, in politics, and even in the home. If we don’t work together, using our strengths and covering up each other’s weaknesses, we won’t succeed.
The same is true of the church. All Christians should work together for the glory of God. We are not all the same. We don’t all have the same talents, the same skills, and the same spiritual gifts. But we should all work together. When we don’t, the church doesn’t work well, and Jesus’ reputation suffers.
If you’re a Christian, my message to you today is to use the abilities that God has given you to help this church. If you’re visiting, if you’re not yet a Christian, you’re going to see a picture of how Christians should work together. We often fail to work together this way. We’re not Christians because we’re perfect, because we’re so good or because we’ve done a certain amount of good works. No, we’re not perfect; we’re perfect messes, saved only because God is merciful and gracious. But we should strive to be better.
To see how we should work together, we are going to look at 1 Corinthians 12. This is part of a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church that had a lot of problems, including problems getting along. We’ll begin by reading the first three verses of the chapter.
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
From what we can gather, the Corinthians had written a letter to Paul asking him some questions. One of those questions was about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are abilities that the Holy Spirit has given Christians so that they can serve the church. I think the language of “spiritual gifts” may sound a bit odd to non-Christians or anyone not familiar with our lingo. They’re called gifts because, really, according to the Christian worldview, everything we have is a gift from God. Even our natural abilities, whether that is strength or intelligence or a good personality, are gifts from God. They’re not things we’re entitled to or things that we have created. Sure, we can develop those traits through hard work. But even the ability to work hard is a gift from God. Spiritual gifts are abilities or inclinations that are given to us through the Holy Spirit when or after we come to faith in Jesus.
Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians understand spiritual gifts the right way. But he does this in an unexpected way. He first reminds them of their spiritual pasts. They used to be “pagans,” or, more literally, “Gentiles.” They once were not God’s people, but now they are God’s people. They used to worship false gods, idols, which can’t speak. Idols can’t speak the truth, and those who worship them become like them. But now they worship the true God, and the Holy Spirit is the one who causes them to say, “Jesus is Lord.” You can’t first make a true confession of faith without the Holy Spirit first causing you to become a new type of person. And Paul’s subtle point is this: All Christians are spiritual, because they all have the Holy Spirit.
Paul makes that more explicit in the next couple of paragraphs. Let’s read verses 4–13:
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Let’s break that down a bit. Paul says that in some ways believers are the same. They have the same Holy Spirit dwelling in them. Or, as Paul puts it here, Christians are baptized in one Spirit into the same body, and each one was made to drink of one Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one, true, triune God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Christians serve the same Lord, Jesus Christ. Christians are empowered by the same God. Christians belong to the same body, the body of Christ.
So, in Christianity there is unity. They belong to the same God who has saved them from condemnation, empowered them, and adopted them into the one family of God. They are brought into the one body of Christ, and they all belong to each other. They are to serve the common good by serving each other in the church.
But Paul also emphasizes diversity. There are various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians. There are different forms of service. There are varieties of activities. What Paul means is that though Christians belong together and worship the same God, God has not made us all the same. We all have different strengths. We will serve the church in different ways, according to the way that God has made us and the way that God has gifted us once we have become Christians.
What are the various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians? Well, some of them are rather ordinary, and some are more miraculous. Some seem to enhance natural abilities, like teaching, whereas others are more supernatural. The gifts that Paul mentions in this chapter are: utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Later in the chapter, Paul will mention various people: apostles, prophets, and teachers. We might say that being qualified to serve in those offices is a gift from God, too.
Outside of 1 Corinthians, there are three other mentions of spiritual gifts. One is Romans 12:3–8, which is very similar to what we read here. This is what Paul writes in that letter:
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Again, Paul stresses that there is one body and many members who have different functions and gifts. Again, we see unity and diversity. In Romans, Paul mentions prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, contributing, leading, and being merciful.
In another of Paul’s letter, Ephesians, Paul says that Jesus gave certain people to the church to build it up and to equip the saints for ministry. That list includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, or pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). The ability to serve in those functions is a gift from God, too.
Finally, we read this in 1 Peter 4:10–11:
10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
There, we see two gifts that Paul has already mentioned: speaking and serving.
We can group all of these gifts into different categories. First, we have what are called offices. That is, titles given to various people who have served in the church in different ways. Apostles were with Jesus personally and were sent by him to tell others about him. Since apostles had to see the risen Lord Jesus personally, and since Jesus hasn’t been on the earth for almost two thousand years, there are no more apostles. Prophets are those that spoke a message from God. It’s debated whether prophecy ended early in the history of the church or if it’s alive and well today. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But it’s worth considering what Paul says in Ephesians 2:20. There, he says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” You only lay a foundation once. Prophets might have served a temporary role, revealing God’s will while the various books of the New Testament were still being written. Once the Bible was complete, there is no need to have a once-and-for-all, authoritative word from God for all of his people. Whether there is a lesser role for personal revelation is where the debate is.
We certainly still have evangelists. They are people who tell others the evangel, which means “gospel” or “good news.” The gospel is the message concerning Jesus. It says that though all human beings (other than Jesus) have rebelled against God, have ignored him and dismissed him and failed to love, honor, and obey him, God made a way for his enemies to be reconciled to him. That way is Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who became a man over two thousand years ago (while still being God). Jesus is the only human being who lived a perfect life. He always honored God by loving him and obeying him and representing him perfectly. Yet though Jesus never sinned, he was treated like a sinner. In fact, he was treated like an enemy of the state, as though he were a threat to both the Jewish leaders of his day and the Roman Empire. He was tortured and killed on a terrible instrument of death, the cross. Though people killed Jesus because they didn’t believe him and they hated him, ultimately Jesus’ death was God’s plan. Jesus bore the punishment that sinners deserve, so that everyone who trusts him will be forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God, adopted in to his family, and have eternal life. Trusting Jesus means believing his claims, that he is the Son of God, the God-man, the only one who can make us right with God. Trusting Jesus means knowing that he is Lord, King, Master, our ultimate authority.
This message needs to be shared, so we need evangelists. We also have pastors, or shepherds, sometimes also called overseers. They lead, guide, and protect the church. They also teach and preach. The gospel needs to be taught. So does the fullness of the Bible. Some parts are easier to understand, some parts are harder to understand. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to apply Scripture to our lives. Pastors, who have the gift and ability to teach, help the church make sense of God’s word.
But there are many other ways to serve in a church. If we take all the spiritual gifts, we can group them into different categories. There are two types of gifts that deal with speaking. One category is related to teaching. This includes the utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge. We don’t know exactly what Paul means by utterances of wisdom and knowledge, since this is the only time in the Bible that these phrases occur. But the book of Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10). So, these utterances probably have to do with teaching people about God and how to respect him and live for him. That’s a lot of what pastors do. “The one who exhorts,” which is found in Romans 12:8, can also be translated as “the one who encourages” (the New International Version has something similar). You don’t have to be a pastor to encourage other Christians. There are some people in this church who clearly have the spiritual gift of encouragement.
Another category involves revelatory speech, or even supernatural speech. That includes prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Prophecy generally is considered “a word from the Lord.” It can be a message about the future, or a message of guidance or direction. As I said earlier, it’s debated whether this continues or not now that the whole of the Bible is complete. In fact, that happened by the end of the first century. The last book of the Bible to be written was probably the book of Revelation, most likely written in the mid-90s. In the early days of Christianity, people couldn’t simply turn to the New Testament to read God’s word, because it wasn’t complete yet, and even the books that were completed existed only in handwritten copies. (This was centuries before the advent of the printing press, which made mass production of books possible.) I think the best argument against modern-day prophecy is that since the Bible is complete, no more needs to be added to it, and the foundation of God’s word, revealed through apostles and prophets, has been laid once and for all. If there’s any kind of “prophecy” that exists today, it might be of a very limited nature, directing someone or perhaps a church to make a certain decision. But if someone comes to me and says, “I’m a prophet,” I’m very wary of that person. Ultimately, beliefs about prophecy rest on theological assumptions that I don’t have time to unpack right now.
Much of what can be said about prophecy could be said about tongues, which could be foreign languages that the speaker doesn’t know but is able to speak miraculously (as in the case of Pentecost in Acts 2), or some ecstatic language that no human knows, but is later interpreted by another. Some people believe this was only something that happened in the first century, and all other talking in tongues is either something faked or something that could even be prompted by evil spirits. I don’t see a biblical reason why speaking in tongues can’t happen today. But I also don’t think it needs to happen. However, I have heard stories about people speaking in tongues in places where there is a great amount of spiritual warfare, or where the gospel is being preached for the first time. So, I can’t immediately write off the idea that people can’t speak in tongues.
If these revelatory and miraculous gifts exist today—and I’m not sure that they do—they are probably quite rare. Therefore, I won’t spend any more time talking about them today.
Other gifts deal with leading. We have already considered the gift of being a pastor or teacher, which is related to the gift of teaching or speaking. In verse 28, Paul mentions “administrating.” The Greek word that is translated that way refers to piloting or steering a ship. This is the job of the pastor or pastors. It’s possible that pastors also discern between good and evil spirits, though this kind of spiritual discernment can be exercised by other people in the church.
Many of the gifts relate to physical service of some kind. Some of those might be miraculous in nature, like healing and working miracles. But most often, the spiritual gift of service will be a desire to serve in practical and mundane ways. In verse 28, Paul refers to it as “helping.” “Acts of mercy,” also found in Romans (12:8), may consist of physical acts of service to those in need. Or it may be an attitude of compassion toward the down and out. “Contributing” (Rom. 12:8) refers to those who are particularly generous.
One spiritual gift is simply “faith.” This doesn’t mean the kind of faith that every believer has, which is also a gift. It refers to a special ability to trust in God and his provision, particularly when things don’t look hopeful. We might call it “hope against hope.”
I could go into more detail with each of these. But hopefully you can see that there are a variety of spiritual gifts. They aren’t the same. Not everyone receives these gifts. But remember this, they are all given “for the common good (verse 7). “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (verse 11). We don’t decide which spiritual gifts we’ll have, and they are not for building ourselves up. They are for the benefit of the church.
And, as Paul will say next, each member of the church is needed. Let’s read verses 14–20:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
Paul’s point here is simple and it’s funny. The members of the church are like different parts of the body. We all need each other, just like the foot needs the whole body, and so does the hand, and the ear. Eyes are great, but if the whole body was an eye, we would be pretty useless. If we were all the same, the church wouldn’t function well. If we were all leaders and teachers, there would be no one to lead and teach. There would be no followers and students. If everyone served in physical ways, but no one was equipped to lead, the church would be chaotic. Every member of the church is needed, and every member of the church should use his or her spiritual gifts to add to the church, just as every part of the body has its purpose.
Paul continues this theme in the next several verses. Let’s read verses 21–26:
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
When I described the various spiritual gifts, you probably noticed that some of them are more flashy or prominent. Some are related to things that are easily seen, like teaching or leading. Some are clearly miraculous. But some seem rather mundane. After all, service and helping could be a person’s desire to do dirty work to help the church or the people of the church. It might be cleaning a floor, or mowing an older person’s lawn, or something along those lines. But all the spiritual gifts are vital to the health of a church.
One person here once said that he was a foot, because he knew he wasn’t a leader. I’m not the head of the church, because the head of the church is Jesus. But in a way, I’m a head of this church. And I cannot say to that man, so the so-called foot, “I don’t need you.” No, I need you. The parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable. We honor the parts of the body that the world might not honor, because each part is needed.
Each person must play his or her own role, according to the way God has made that person and according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given that person. Often, the gifts are just enhancements of natural abilities. People with the ability to teach probably already had some decent amount of intelligence, but the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to have special insight regarding God’s word. People with the gift of service already have bodies that work, but the Holy Spirit gave them a desire to use their bodies to serve God. We don’t need the foot to try to be the head, or the eye to try to be the ear. That often happens in small churches, and that isn’t right. We often thrust people into some kind of leadership role when they aren’t leaders. For some reason, this church has thought of service almost entirely in terms of committees, which is very strange, because committees are often tasked with making decisions, which is what leaders do. Pushing people into roles they’re not gifted to do is like exposing an “unpresentable part.” It’s not appropriate, it doesn’t work, and it often leaves people feeling frustrated. Each person should find a role in the body that suits them.
The truth is that if you’re a Christian, you belong to the body of Christ. Jesus himself isn’t divided; therefore, there shouldn’t be division in the body of Christ. Everyone should work harmoniously together. That’s why people who are divisive can be removed from a church, because divisiveness hurts the church. You should care about the rest of the body. If one member of the church is suffering, we should all suffer together. If one is honored, or has something to celebrate, we should all rejoice together. We’re in this together.
Let’s read the last portion of this chapter, verses 27–31:
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Paul once again says that we are all members of the body of Christ, and that God has appointed people to serve in different ways. He then asks some rhetorical questions. Are all apostles? No. Are all prophets? No. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. And so on. We’re not all called to do the same kind of service, and if you are a foot, you’re not less valuable than a head. Paul does say to seek the so-called “higher gifts,” like prophesying (1 Cor. 14:1), but he points them to “a still more excellent way” in the following chapter, when he talks about love. If we have spiritual gifts but don’t use them to build each other up in love, we are nothing.
Now that we’ve gone through this chapter and talked about spiritual gifts, I want us to think about how this teaching relates to this church. As I said last week, the New Testament presupposes that Christians will belong to a local church in some recognizable way. And one of those ways is in service, in using one’s talents and spiritual gifts. I would urge us all to serve this church by using whatever God has given you. You may not know exactly what your spiritual gifts are, but I can tell you that a lack of commitment is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church as a consumer, merely taking when it’s convenient to you, is not a spiritual gift. Approaching church on your own terms and not on God’s doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.
Now, if you’re feeling God nudge you in the direction of service, you may wonder about your spiritual gift. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about this. This week, a timely article was written by a New Testament scholar and a pastor named Tom Schreiner. He says this: “if you get involved in the lives of others in your church and love as Jesus commanded, then you will discover your gift.” He then elaborates:
Some might say they still don’t know their gift. But knowing your spiritual gift isn’t as important as exercising your spiritual gift. Surely many believers in history didn’t know their spiritual gifts or think much about them, and yet they exercised those gifts in powerful ways. If you aren’t sure what your spiritual gifts are, I wouldn’t worry about it. If you give yourself to other believers in the church, you will inevitably be using your gifts.
I think that’s great advice. Just get involved and the spiritual gifts will become clear. If you see a need, try to meet it. Perhaps you’ll try something that doesn’t fit. That’s okay. In time, you’ll know what your gifts are. Usually, other people will recognize them in you. I can tell you that there people here who obviously have the gift of encouragement. Others are servants, ready to do physical tasks. I’m sure there are some who contribute generously. Some are particularly merciful.
My sense is that most of us will hear this message and walk away without thinking about how they can serve this church. I would urge you not to do that. This church needs your help. How can you serve? Let me list some possible ways very quickly. We need people to serve in ways that help our meetings every week. We need people to help take care of children. Someone offered to help a few weeks ago in that area, and I appreciate that. We need people to help count the money offered. We need people to maintain the building and grounds. We could use a lot more help with yard work and painting and cleaning and fixing things. We could use help from people who have skills with technology. We could use help from people who are evangelists, or people who have connections in our community that might help us do outreach. In a couple of months, we’ll participate in West Bridgewater’s Park Day again, and we need help with that. We need people to contribute generously to this church; at this point in time, we really need more help with that, just in order to maintain and improve this building, but also to do more ministry.
And that doesn’t include the ways that the members of the church might need help. I’m sure there are people here who need help in their homes, in their lives, with their families, with situations that are overwhelming them.
The point is that we should all be involved in the life of the church. God expects this. If you’re not doing this now, please come and talk to me. Talk to me about joining the church and seeing how you can get involved. Talk to the deacons. Talk to people around you. Don’t leave here today, shrug your shoulders, and forget about what you’ve heard. If you’re a Christian, remember that you were bought with a price, which is Jesus’ death on the cross. You were saved from condemnation, from eternal death, not so you can live a comfortable life, but so that you can serve God.
And if you’re not yet a Christian, I urge you to turn to Jesus. You have heard the gospel message. Trust Jesus—trust that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. No one else can make you right with God. Jesus laid down his life for his people. You, too, can become part of the body of Christ today.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- The Corinthians would have been predominantly Gentile, not Jewish, Christians. Paul uses the Greek word for Gentiles (ethne) to describe what they were. They have now joined the true Israel by becoming Christians. ↑
- Thomas Schreiner, “How (Not) to Discover Your Spiritual Gifts,” The Gospel Coalition, July 6, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-not-discover-spiritual-gifts/ ↑
Cleanliness is next to godliness. That’s apparently what the preacher John Wesley said in a 1778 sermon.
There’s some truth to that, though it’s easy to misunderstand. But we all know that cleanliness is important, and if things aren’t clean, there will eventually be trouble.
At the very end of last year, just after Christmas, the weather was extremely cold. And during that cold spell, our car started making some terribly loud noises when we started it. It was a low, loud groan, that kind of sounded like an angry cow. This went on for a few days, and one day when I had to drive somewhere early in the morning, it had a hard time steering, as if the power steering had gone out. So, I tried calling some mechanics and the local Honda dealership to see if I could get the car looked at. Because of the holidays, they had limited time slots, so they were booked solid. The best I could do was make an appointment for after the New Year.
So, I went online trying to figure out what might be wrong, to see how urgent this condition was. I saw some articles that suggest there might be a problem with the power steering. So, I followed the advice of one blog and took a turkey baster to suck up the old, dirty power steering fluid, and I replaced it with new fluid. It seemed to work pretty well. But then in February, I took the car to the dealership to get an oil change and to have them look at this situation. They told me there was a leak in the power steering fluid pump (the angry cow), and that I need to have that fixed, as well as get some other things done on the car. I’m not a car guy, but I like to get things taken care of on the car sooner rather than later, so that there aren’t bigger problems down the line. So, I had some preventive maintenance done.
I imagine that part of the reason why the powering steering pump wasn’t working well during the cold was because I was overdue for a power steering fluid flush and change. When the power steering fluid gets dirty, and when any water vapor gets in the lines, there can be problems during cold weather. So, dirty fluid led to problems. The same would be true if I never changed the oil. If you try to go 20,000 miles with dirty oil, your car is going to suffer.
The same can be true of our bodies. If our blood isn’t clean, or if our digestive tract isn’t clean, we can have problems. If you eat a terrible diet and never exercise, you’re going to have problems. It’s quite possible your arteries will get clogged with plaque, which could lead to serious and even fatal problems.
Now, while it’s important to take care of your vehicle, having a car that has clean fluids and runs well won’t get you closer to God. And though it’s important to take care of your body, being healthy doesn’t make you a godlier person. But there’s a different kind of health, one that is more important, and that is the health of your soul. And if we want to have an abundant life, a healthy life, a life that fulfills the purposes for which we are made, we have to be made clean. If we want to see God and live forever with him in paradise, we need to be spiritually clean.
The only one who can clean up our souls, who can provide forgiveness of sins, is Jesus. The only way to have true, lasting health—in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our souls—is through Jesus. Today, we’ll see that Jesus has the power and authority to clean people and forgive them. We’ll see this in Luke 5:12–26.
If you haven’t been with us recently, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke for over three months. Luke is one of the four biographies of Jesus found in the Bible. He begins his story of Jesus with the events leading up to—and including—Jesus’ birth. And after describing a brief episode of Jesus as a boy, Luke focuses on Jesus’ public ministry of teaching and performing miracles. We’ll see that continue today.
First, let’s read verses 12–16:
12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Jesus is in one of the cities in Galilee, perhaps in Capernaum, where he was before. While there, he encounters a man who has leprosy. When we read about leprosy in the Bible, we may be confused, because it’s different from what is called leprosy today. What we know as leprosy today is also known as Hansen’s disease, which is named after the person who identified the microorganism that causes that skin disease. In the Bible, the term “leprosy” can describe a variety of skin conditions.
What’s most important to know is that this man’s skin disease has made him unclean. And that was his biggest problem. He doesn’t say, “Lord, if you will, you can heal me.” No, he says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”
Now, to understand this issue, we have to know something about what the Bible says about diseases and being clean. And to understand this, we have to understand something about the nature of sin. Last week, I said that sin was a rebellion against God, a turning away from our Creator and turning to value the creation instead. We were made to know, love, and worship God but we have turned away from him. We don’t seek a relationship with him—at least not a right relationship with him. We don’t love him the way we ought to. We don’t worship him all the time. We don’t do what he wants us to do. In other words, we don’t live according to his design. And because of that turning away from God, we have a broken world. When we turn away from the God who ordered and arranged the world, we find disorder and chaos. When we turn away from the God who is love, we find hate and war. When we turn away from the giver of life, we find death. Part of the penalty of sin is a world full of disease and ultimately death.
So, the ultimate reason there are diseases like leprosy in the world is because of sin. That doesn’t mean there’s a direct connection between a person’s sin and an illness they have. It’s not that all people who have diseases have done some particularly awful sin. Some very healthy people are great sinners, and some very godly people have a lot of ailments. So, there’s no one-to-one connection between the amount of sin in a person’s life and their bodily health. But the reason anyone has a disease is because of the presence of sin in the world. And the fact is that all of us have sinned. There’s only person who never did, and that’s Jesus.
Now, in the Old Testament, we find that God calls a people, the Israelites, to himself. He rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and then he gave them his law, which taught them how to live. And when you read through that law, particularly the book of Leviticus, you find a lot of information about skin diseases (Leviticus 13 and 14), in particular. And sometimes it’s all a bit baffling to us. But the idea is that in order to be part of God’s people, you had to be clean. Now, on one level, this makes perfect sense. The Israelites didn’t have modern medicine and diseases are contagious. In order to protect the health of the people, those who had diseases had to be removed. They often were placed outside the camp until they became clean, or healthy. So, the idea of keeping the unclean people on the edge of the community made perfect sense.
But the law also addresses issues in a symbolic way. The idea that you get when you read the book of Leviticus is that in order for the Israelites to approach God in worship they needed to be pure. They needed to be cleansed of their sin. Anything that made the Israelites impure made them unfit to be in the presence of God. And since diseases are ultimately the result of sin, those who were diseased couldn’t be part of the community. They were ostracized. That was a visual picture of the contagious nature of sin. Sin needed to be removed from God’s people. Sin corrupts. Sin has a way of being contagious, spreading throughout one body and on to others.
Because this man had leprosy, he would have been shunned by others. He would have been considered untouchable, for to touch someone with leprosy would make that person unclean. A leper was treated like someone who was less than human. Just listen to these words, found in Leviticus 13:45–46:
45 The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.
So, this leper that Jesus meets has a skin condition that causes him to be “alone” and “outside the camp.” I’m sure he wants to be healed, but what he really needs is to be made clean.
What’s amazing is that Jesus heals the man by touching him. He didn’t have to touch the man. Jesus has the power to heal just by saying a word. But he intentionally touches the man, showing him that he is indeed a human being worthy of love and care.
When Jesus heals and therefore cleanses the man, he tells him not to tell others, but to go to the priest and to bring an animal sacrifice. In the Old Testament law, priests were the ones who examined people to see if they were healed. And if the person was healed, then that person had to offer animal sacrifices. Those sacrifices made that person clean (see Lev. 14:1–32).
The idea that animal sacrifices could make someone clean is strange to us, but the idea is simple, and it goes back to that root problem of sin. Because we have sinned against a holy, perfect God who made us for himself, we deserve death. In part, that’s because our sin corrupts God’s good creation. God wants to cleanse the evil from his creation. And evil deserves punishment. But God is also merciful and gracious, so he provided a way for unclean sinners to be made clean. Instead of us dying for our own sin, a substitute death could take place. In the Old Testament law, the substitutes were animals. An animal’s life could be taken instead of a human’s life. And, like the rest of the law, this had a teaching element. It taught that sin is a serious crime that deserves the most serious punishment. But it also taught that the God could allow the punishment to be taken by another.
This healing shows that Jesus has the power to heal unclean people. No Old Testament priest or prophet could heal a leper with just a touch. But Jesus also is righteous, obeying the demands of the Old Testament law.
And when people start to hear of his healing powers, they gather around him. In Mark’s account of this story, “Jesus could not longer openly enter a town” because of these crowds. Therefore, he “was out in desolate places” (Mark 1:45). Here, we’re told that Jesus went to those desolate places to pray.
When Jesus came to earth over two thousand years ago, his job was not to heal every disease. The miraculous healings he performed were not a new form of healthcare for all of Israel. No, they were signs that were meant to point to his identity as the one who would heal people of the root cause of illness, which is sin. But people are people, and if there’s a way to be healed, they want that. So, they crowded around Jesus. But Jesus needed time to be alone. He needed time to rest, and time to pray. Jesus is the Son of God, which means he is divine and has perfect union with God the Father. But as a man, Jesus also needed to spend time praying to his Father, talking to him. So, he withdrew to spend time in prayer. Jesus often prayed before important moments in his life.
Perhaps Jesus prayed at that time because he was getting ready for the conflicts that he would have with various Jewish religious leaders. We see the first of such conflicts in the next paragraph, Luke 5:17–26:
17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”
Jesus’ teaching and miracles attracted a crowd. They also attracted the attention of some Jewish religious leaders. The Pharisees were one of four major groups of Judaism at that time. They were lay leaders who took a particular interest in how to be faithful to the Old Testament law. To do that, they developed a system of applying those laws to many situations not explicitly described in Scripture. The teachers of the law, otherwise known as scribes, were those who could make judgments as to whether the law was being followed. Luke tells us that these religious leaders were coming from all over to see Jesus.
At this time, Jesus is teaching in a building, and it is crowded with people. When Mark reports this event, he said that Jesus “was preaching the word to them” (Mark 2:2). And while Jesus is preaching, a group of men carry another man on a stretcher. This man was paralyzed, and his friends bring him to Jesus to be healed. The problem is that they can’t get through the crowd to get to Jesus. So, they find another way. In those days, houses were simple structures. They had a flat roof that was accessible by an outside staircase. In hot weather, people could sleep on the roof. So, they bring the man up the stairs, and then dig through the roof so that they can lower their friend to Jesus. These are some motivated people! They must have been a bit desperate, but they knew that Jesus alone could heal their friend.
When these men get their friend to Jesus, Jesus can sense their faith. They trust that Jesus can heal their friend. But he does something unexpected. Instead of healing their friend, he simply says, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” That would be like going to your doctor, hoping to get medicine, and him reading some Scripture to you instead. You might say, “That’s nice, but I really was hoping you’d fix my body!”
We may not understand what’s happening here, but these Jewish leaders did. They thought to themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Why would these ask those questions? Think about this: who can forgive an offense? The person who has been offended. But we have no evidence that this paralyzed man had done anything to offend Jesus directly. We’re not told that he lied about Jesus, called him names, stole something from him, or anything like that. So, how can Jesus dare to forgive this man? It would be strange if you got into a fight with someone in your family and I came along and said, “You are forgiven.” I had nothing to do with that conflict. How could I forgive you?
Well, the answer is that Jesus isn’t just a man. Jesus is the God-man. He has always existed as the Son of God. The true, living God is triune. He is one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God doesn’t have a body. He is spirit. His immaterial. And yet, over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a human being, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in a virgin’s womb. He was born as any baby would be, he grew as any child would, and he lived as a common—though sinless—Jewish man. But he is still God. And God has the power to forgive all sins.
So, when Jesus says this man’s sins are forgiven, he is telling the truth. But these Jewish leaders don’t believe that Jesus is God. So, they question him. And Jesus knows the secret questions they have, so he answers them with another question: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” In one sense, saying either thing is equally easy. They’re just words. But the difference is that if Jesus just says, “Your sins are forgiven you,” there’s no clear evidence that anything has occurred. There’s no physical event that happens when you are forgiven. So, Jesus can say this man is forgiven, and no one could prove him wrong.
But it’s different if you say to a paralyzed man, “You’re healed. Get up and walk.” In that case, others could see whether that happened or not. That’s why Jesus says, “But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” The man does just that. He gets up and goes, glorifying God. That miracle proves that Jesus has the authority and power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins. The people were amazed and they glorified God. But, as we’ll see, the Pharisees weren’t impressed. They can’t deny Jesus’ power, but they don’t trust him. So, they will later slander him and say that his power is demonic (Luke 11:14–15; John 10:19–20).
So, what do we learn from this passage? How does it affect our lives?
I think there are at least two major things we can learn from this passage. One is that while physical health is important, and we all want physical healing when we’re sick, there’s something more important. Ultimately, our spiritual health is the most important thing.
People can be very healthy in this life and be very far from God. You can devote all your time to diet and exercise, to preventative medicine, and have a long life. You may be fortunate to die at an old age, without having a heart attack or a stroke or cancer. Perhaps you’ll be one of those rare people who die peacefully in your sleep. But if you have that and you’re far from God, your physical health may last only for eighty, ninety, or even one hundred years.
But if diseases and handicaps afflict your body now, and your sins are forgiven because you trust in Jesus, your bad physical health will only remain for decades, whether those decades are few or many. You will die, just as all of us will die. And at that point, your spirit will be in heaven with Jesus. But that’s not the end of the story. All of God’s people will be resurrected. That means that their souls will be rejoined to their bodies. But those bodies will be transformed—we call this “glorified” in theology—so that they are perfect. Those bodies will be immortal. They will never die, let alone have any diseases.
So, if you focus only on physical health now, you won’t get it in the end. You’ll ultimately experience condemnation, a dreadful, eternal existence apart from God and anything good. But if you focus on spiritual health now, you’ll get physical health thrown in, and that physical health will last forever. That doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t focus on taking care of their bodies. We should. But there are more important issues.
Several years ago, I had surgery to heal a herniated disc in my back. I was a bit apprehensive about having surgery, particularly after one of my doctors explained all that could go wrong on the operating table. And he said, “There are worse things than dying.” I think he meant that I could be paralyzed or have some other outcome that would be worse than simply dying during surgery. But it’s true. There are worse things than facing physical death. The Bible describes final condemnation as a second death. All who reject Jesus will face a spiritual death, which is far worse than we can imagine.
Now, if you’re here today and you don’t know where you stand with Jesus, you may not understand why sin is such a problem. If that’s the case, I would urge you to listen to last week’s message, which you can find on our website or on our podcast channel. In short, sin is a rebellion against God. The only reason anything exists is because God created it. God created this universe for his glory. He created this planet for his glory. He created life on this planet for that purpose. And he created human beings to know him, love him, worship him, represent what he is like, and rule the world by coming under his authoritative word. But we reject God. We may not think of our attitude toward God as rebellion or rejection, but if we’re not living our lives for God, thinking about him, his design for our lives, and his will, then we’re ignoring God. If we don’t truly love God simply for who he is, we’re rejecting him. And if we’re not following his design for our lives, thinking we know better than God, we’re rebels. That’s a serious problem, one that corrupts us just the way an infectious disease might destroy a healthy body.
If you don’t know Jesus truly, if you’re not relying on him to heal your soul, I urge you to put your trust in him.
If you do know Jesus, take the issue of cleansing from sin very seriously. We should prioritize healing of sins. We should be praying for the salvation of the lost more than we pray for someone’s physical condition. There are worse things than dying.
And we should take seriously the contagion of sin. I’ll talk about this after the service, but I’ll say this now: Sin that goes unchecked has a way of spreading. And just as a body can be damaged by a disease, the body of Christ, the church, can be damaged by sins. Yes, we’re all sinners, so we will fail, often in small ways. But there are larger sins, sins that are particularly egregious, that we must root out of the church. Any division, any slander, any fighting against one another, any rebellion against God-ordained authority, sexual sins, false doctrine—these things have to go. We don’t deal seriously with sin in order to beat up on other people, or to act “holier than Thou,” or to be judgmental. We take sin seriously because it’s bad for us. We should want spiritual health, both individually and within this church.
The second thing we should take away from this passage is that Jesus has the authority and power to heal. And he has the compassion to do so. Obviously, Jesus performs miraculous healings. Some of us may be skeptical about the possibility of miracles. If that is the case, you should know that science cannot disprove that miracles take place. In order to do that, scientists would have to observe and measure every single event that has ever taken place in history. If you stop and think about that, such observation would be impossible. And many credible witnesses throughout history have reported seeing miracles take place.
The Gospels are reliable historical documents, and they all agree that Jesus has the power to perform miracles. He can do so because he is the God-man.
He also has the power to forgive sins. Again, he can do that because he is God. But on what basis does Jesus forgive sins? In other words, how does Jesus forgive sins? Does he simply sweep them under the carpet and forget about them? Does he relativize them and say, “Oh, don’t worry, you’re not so bad. Sure, you made a mistake, but who doesn’t?” No. Jesus doesn’t take sin lightly. In fact, he goes so far as to say that no one is good but God (Luke 18:19) and that the world is evil (John 7:7). So, how can Jesus forgive sins if he doesn’t take them lightly or just set them aside?
The reason Jesus can forgive sins is because he would die to pay the penalty for them. Each Gospel depicts Jesus’ death. He didn’t die of natural causes. No, he was tortured and crucified, executed in a horribly painful manner. And he wasn’t executed because he had done anything wrong. Yes, people like the Pharisees hated him and wanted to get rid of him. But, ultimately, Jesus died because it was God’s plan to crush sin instead of crushing all sinners. When Jesus died, he didn’t just experience a physical death. He experienced a spiritual death, alienation from his Father. He endured hell on earth, suffering that goes far beyond mere physical pain. He did this so that he could take on the condemnation that sinners deserve. But his death only pays for the sins of those who put their trust in him, who come to him in faith knowing that he alone can heal, who come to him in love and humility knowing that he is King and God.
Jesus has the authority and power to heal. But he also has the love and compassion to do so. He touched a leper, an outcast. This would be like someone in the 1980s touching a person dying of AIDS. In those days, we didn’t know a lot of about HIV and AIDS, and there was a great fear. People who had that disease were rejected and feared. But Jesus isn’t afraid. He comes to people who have a far worse condition than AIDS—he comes to people who have the malignant, rapidly-spreading, defiling and contagious disease of sin—and he heals them. Let us come to Jesus for healing, so that he can forgive us of sin, cleanse us of sin, and transform us so that we become healthy.
- Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- Jesus prayed before the Holy Spirit descended on him, shortly before he was tempted in the wilderness (Luke 3:21). He prayed all night before he called his twelve disciples (Luke 6:12). He prayed before Peter’s confession and his first prediction about his death (Luke 9:18). He prayed at the time of his transfiguration (Luke 9:28–29). His prayer led to his disciples asking him how to pray (Luke 11:1). He prayed on the Mount of Olives before his arrest (Luke 22:39–44). And he prayed on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46). ↑
- The others were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/let-down-your-nets. ↑
How can we truly be healthy human beings? The only way to be made whole is to receive the healing, cleansing, and forgiveness that Jesus can give. Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Luke 5:12-26.
You may not know this, but there’s a football team that plays just a few towns away, in Foxboro. They’re called the New England Patriots, and they’re pretty good. In fact, this afternoon, they’re playing the AFC Championship game. This is the seventh season in a row that they’re playing in that game and twelfth time in seventeen years. During that stretch of time, when Tom Brady has been the quarterback and Bill Belichick the coach, the team has gone to seven Super Bowls and won five of them. They may go again to the Super Bowl this year. This is an unprecedented run of success. Only the San Francisco 49ers have had a similar seventeen-year run, and it’s not likely that another NFL team will have a similar run in the future.
In short, it’s good to be a New England Patriots fan. The team has won five Super Bowls on behalf of New England. We can share in those victories. They are our champions.
It’s good to be a Pats fan. But it’s quite another thing to play for the Pats in the future. Imagine the quarterback who starts for the Patriots after Tom Brady retires. According to Brady’s plan, that will be about five years from now. But at some point in time, he’ll have to step down as the starting quarterback. Imagine the man who will follow in his footsteps. I won’t feel bad for him. After all, he’ll make millions of dollars and he’ll be famous. But the fact is he’ll never be as good or as successful as Tom Brady. For him, Brady won’t be a champion. No, he’ll be an example, someone to emulate. But the sad thing is that man will always fall short. Brady will cast a long shadow on whoever follows him.
If the Patriots are your champions, they’ve won titles for you. No one can take those Super Bowl victories away from New England. In fact, every time I fly, which isn’t that often, in the terminal I usually use (Terminal C), right above the long, snaking line to go through security, the championship banners of all the Boston teams hang on the wall. If you look to the left, you see the early World Series victories of the Red Sox. As you start to look to the right, you see a lot of green, for all the Celtics championships. But as you continue to look to the right, you see more Red Sox banners, and then the five Patriot banners. This is a reminder of the what Boston teams have done for their fans.
But if you’re a player for any of those teams and haven’t yet won a championship, those banners don’t mean much. Those aren’t your victories. The player who follows Tom Brady can’t claim Brady’s five Super Bowl rings. He’ll have to earn his own. And it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever get that many.
Now, why am I talking about sports? Because they illustrate an important concept related to Jesus. It’s one thing for Jesus to be your champion, and it’s another thing for him to be your example. A lot of people look at Jesus only as an example. Many people see Jesus as a great man, a wise teacher, but something less than God. Thomas Jefferson held this view. Many people who call themselves Christians but have unorthodox beliefs hold this view. Muslims believe Jesus is a prophet, but not the Son of God. New Age spiritualists think of Jesus as an enlightened teacher, but not the God-man who died for the sins of the world.
But Christianity says that while Jesus is an example, is not just or merely an example. There are certainly ways that we can emulate Jesus. But there are things that only he could do. Only he could live a perfectly righteous life. Only he could die for the sins of a multitude of people.
Almost a hundred years ago, a theologian named John Gresham Machen made a distinction between biblical, historical Christian and so-called “liberalism.” I often don’t use words like “conservative” and “liberal” because they instantly bring to mind all kinds of political ideas, some of which aren’t helpful. But when Machen talked about “liberalism,” he meant a drifting away from orthodox Christianity, a movement away from the Bible. And he said that Christianity and liberalism were two different religions. For the so-called liberal, “Jesus for him is an example of faith, not the object of faith. The modern liberal tries to have faith in God like the faith which he supposes Jesus had in God; but he does not have faith in Jesus.” But that was not the Christianity of the apostles, including Paul. “Jesus was not for Paul merely an example for faith; He was primarily the object of faith. . . . Not the example of Jesus, but the redeeming work of Jesus, was the primary thing for Paul.”
The apostles knew that Jesus was their champion. If we were to go back to our sports analogy, he won the “big game” for them. Yet so many people today think they can win the game on their own, and that their job is to follow the example of Jesus. The irony is that if you try to win on your own, even if you follow Jesus’ example to the best of your ability, you’ll never win. But if you admit you can’t win, and you trust Jesus’ victory on your behalf, you’ll win the trophy, and that prize will never be taken from you.
We get a sense of Jesus’ unique role in history in today’s passage, Luke 3:21–38. This passage consists of Jesus’ baptism and a genealogy that connects Jesus to the first man, Adam. This passage teaches us that Jesus is God’s unique, beloved Son, the one who comes to repair that damage that Adam, the first “son of God,” caused.
Let’s begin by reading the first two verses, Luke 3:21–22:
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Last week, we saw that Jesus’ relative, John, was baptizing people as a way of preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. He was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). He was showing the people of Israel that they were rebels against God, they were unclean from their sin, and they needed to be washed. John’s job was to point the way to the one who came after him, the one mightier than him, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16).
Now, Jesus is baptized. Luke doesn’t say that it was John the Baptist who performed the baptism, but Matthew tells us that. Matthew also gives us a little more information about Jesus’ baptism, so I’ll go ahead and read Matthew 3:13–17:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now, if you’re paying attention, and if you know anything about Jesus, you may wonder why Jesus would be baptized. In fact, that’s what John wondered. John tried to stop Jesus, but Jesus says he needed to be baptized.
The reason that Jesus gives is that “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus has come to save his people from their sin (Matt. 1:21). As we see in this passage, he is the Son of God. Yet though Jesus has always existed as the Son of God, over two thousand years ago, he also became a human being. He came to live a perfect human life. Earlier, I quoted J. Gresham Machen from his book, Christianity and Liberalism. In that same book, he writes, “Jesus was the most religious man who ever lived; He did nothing and said nothing and thought nothing without the thought of God.” We cannot say the same thing about ourselves. We do not do everything in life with a proper reverence for God. We don’t put God at the center of our lives, where he deserves to be. Though Jesus lived the perfect life, he came to identify with sinful human beings.
So, here’s the point: Jesus wasn’t baptized for his sins. He didn’t have any sins to be cleansed of. But he was baptized for our sins. All of us have broken God’s laws. Israel broke the laws God gave to them. All of us have broken God’s moral law. That is why Jesus came: to be the one who obeys God’s law in our place and to be the one who pays the penalty for our law-breaking. He was baptized in order to identify with sinful human beings.
He was probably also baptized in order to affirm John’s ministry. In other words, by being baptized by John, he was setting his seal on what John was doing. He was saying, “I affirm this message.”
And during his baptism, God the Father set his seal on his Son. Jesus’ baptism was the occasion when he was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and when God the Father said, for all to hear, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God didn’t say these words to John the Baptist. God didn’t say these words to the other people John baptized. God the Father only said these words to Jesus, because Jesus alone is God’s one-of-kind, unique Son.
Before I explain what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, I want to pick up on three images that are found in these two verses in Luke (3:21–22). First, the heavens are opened. Second, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus right after he is baptized. Third, the Holy Spirit “descended on him in bodily form, like a dove.”
The idea that heavens are opened shows that Jesus is the connection between God and humans, between heaven and earth. The heavens weren’t opened for anyone else. The prophet Isaiah said to God, hundreds of years earlier, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64:1). God has done that. God has torn open the heavens and come down in the person of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit is significant. Here, in this passage, we have all three Persons of God. The Father’s voice is heard, telling his Son that he is pleased with him. The Son of God is on earth. And the Holy Spirit anoints Jesus. The fact that the Holy Spirit comes on Jesus, along with the Father’s voice, shows that God has set his seal on Jesus. The Father has set his seal on his Son. The man Jesus is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform the Father’s mission.
The fact that God the Father, Jesus—the Son of God who is also called the Word of God (John 1:1)—and the Holy Spirit are present at a body of water reminds me of the beginning of the Bible. The Bible begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:1–2). When God the Father created the world, he ordered and arranged it by his word, as the following verses show. And the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of the waters before creation took form. When Jesus’ mother, Mary, became pregnant, she was a virgin, and the Holy Spirit came upon her to produce a special child, Jesus. As I said last month, when that happened, it was a new start. It reminds us of Genesis and this is no accident, because in Jesus God is bringing about a new creation. The first creation was created by a miracle. But it was spoiled by sin. Jesus, too, is created by a miracle. But Jesus is not spoiled by sin.
Jesus’ baptism is another moment that reminds us of the first creation. This is important, because Jesus is about to begin his ministry. In a moment, we’ll see that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his public ministry. This was the age when men could begin to serve as priests (Num. 4:3), when Joseph started working for Pharaoh in Egypt (Gen. 41:46), and when David started his reign as king (2 Sam. 5:4). It’s also when the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision when the heavens were opened (Ezek. 1:1). Jesus is the true prophet, priest, and king.
Also, when God fashioned the world to be the way he wanted to be, a temple, a theater for his glory, God saw that it was “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). We’re told the creation was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). Here, God says of his Son, “with you I am well pleased.” The man Jesus is God’s truly pleasing, perfect creation.
And before we move on, let’s talk briefly about why the Holy Spirit appears to look something like a dove. Perhaps that is so because the dove reminds us of the story of Noah. In the days of Noah, the world was so wicked that God decided to flood it (Gen. 6:5–7). The flood was a judgment on sin. We may think of it as something like an extreme baptism. It swept away sinners, cleansing the world. (Of course, it didn’t work, which shows that the world needs more than just judgment to be made right. It needs transforming.) And as the flood waters subsided, Noah sent out a dove to see if the land had reemerged. In time, a dove brought back an olive leaf (Gen. 8:11). The symbols of a dove and an olive branch represent peace. God’s judgment has passed. In Jesus, God brings peace to those who will trust Jesus. Those who know that Jesus is their only hope, the only Son of God, the only Savior, will be restored to a right relationship with God.
After Luke’s brief description of Jesus’ baptism, his anointing by the Holy Spirit, and the Father’s words, which declare that Jesus is his beloved Son, Luke presents us with a genealogy of Jesus. This is one of two genealogies of Jesus in the Bible, and they serve two different purposes. That’s why they are different. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy that starts with Abraham, goes to David, and then ends with Jesus. The point is that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham and the son of David. That matters because God told Abraham that he would bless the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1–3; 22:18), and Jesus is that special offspring (Gal. 3:8, 16). God told David that his “offspring” would inherit his throne and reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13). Matthew’s genealogy has some other differences, but we don’t need to get into those now.
Luke’s genealogy doesn’t come at the beginning of his Gospel, unlike Matthew’s. It comes between Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, for theological reasons. And it is in reverse chronological order. In other words, it moves backward, from Jesus all the back to Abraham and then further back all the way to Adam, the first man, and to God.
Without further ado, I’m going to read the genealogy presented in Luke 3:23–38:
23 Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Esli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Sala, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Arni, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34 the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38 the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
If you compare this genealogy with Matthew’s, you will notice there are many differences. Some people assume this means there is a contradiction. However, for these genealogies to contradict one another, they would have to be the same in sense or the same in relation. If you want to know more about this, you can read an article that I wrote on our website titled, “Are There Contradictions in the Bible?”
But what if these genealogies have different purposes? It seems that Matthew is demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King who was a descendant of David. In other words, Matthew presents a royal genealogy. Luke, however, seems to trace a biological and legal genealogy that connects Adam, the first man, to Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father. Jesus is both the heir to David’s throne and the legal descendant of Adam.
Why do these genealogies diverge? Shouldn’t these genealogies be one and the same?
Gerald Bray, a British theologian, demonstrates how genealogies can diverge by using an example from his homeland.
To understand just how complex genealogies can be, we need look no further than that of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back more or less directly to the accession of George I in 1714, but there is not a straightforward succession from father to son. When we go back to the Tudors (1485–1603) and Stuarts (1603–1714), we find that of the twelve rulers they produced between them, the present queen is descended from only two—Henry VII (1485–1509) and James I (1603–1625). Ironically, although she cannot claim the first Elizabeth as her ancestor, she can include Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I executed for her pretensions to the throne of England! Legal and physical descent are very different, and if we do not know the details, we might easily think that one (or both) of the competing genealogies had been made up. We do not have the background information we need to decide what the different genealogies of Jesus mean, but the British example is a warning that we must be careful not to draw conclusions that may seem obvious on the surface but that are actually quite mistaken.
Bray includes a footnote to that passage: “Of the eleven monarchs since 1714, George II was succeeded by his grandson (1760), George IV by his brother (1830), William IV by his niece (1837), and Edward VIII by his brother (1936).” The point Bray is making is that biological and royal ancestry are not always one and the same. This historical example demonstrates that the suggestion that Matthew and Luke are using two different genealogies—both true in their own senses—is possible.
Again, Luke’s point is to connect Jesus to Adam. Adam, the first son of God, was made in God’s image and likeness. He was made to represent God, to reflect his glory, to rule over the earth by coming under God’s rule, to worship and serve God, and to love and obey him. All of this is reflected in Genesis 1:26–28:
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In the ancient Near East, images of gods were placed in temples dedicated to those gods. The images represented that god’s supposed rule and presence in that land. It seems that God made human beings in his image to function in that same way.
But the language of “in our image, after our likeness” also suggests the relationship of a son. We see this a few chapters later in Genesis. In Genesis 5:1–3, we read this:
1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. 3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
Just as Adam’s son was made in his image and likeness, so Adam was made in God’s image and likeness. That doesn’t mean that Adam looked like God. God doesn’t have a body. But he resembled God in some ways, he represented God, and he was supposed to love God and obey God the way a good son would love and obey his father.
In Genesis 2:15–17, we read,
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
On a basic level, if God placed Adam in the garden, that suggests there is a wilderness outside of the garden. If Adam would later bear fruit and multiply with his wife, Eve, they would have children, and together they would expand the size of the garden. But on a deeper level, the garden is like a temple, the place where God dwells with his people and is glorified. And Adam and Eve were like priests. The verbs translated here as “work” and “keep” are later applied to the Levites and priests, who were supposed to “minister” at the tabernacle and “keep guard” over it (Num. 3:8). So, Adam was made to be like a king, having dominion, but also like a priest. And he was given a commandment not to eat of a certain tree. This commandment was given to him alone, and the idea was that he was supposed to tell his wife the commandment later. He was responsible for her conduct as well as his own.
Many of us know what happens next (in Genesis 3). Satan, in the form of a serpent, tempted Eve, who knew the commandment. She knew not to eat the fruit of that tree. But she ate, and she gave some fruit to Adam, who also ate. They ate because they didn’t trust God’s word. They trusted the words of the serpent instead. And because of their sin, division and death entered into the world and the first human beings were removed from that garden paradise.
All humanity has been wandering in the wilderness since that time. We are not born with a right relationship with God. We’re born into a world that is cursed because of Adam’s sin. Hosea 6:7 says that God made a covenant with Adam. He represented all humanity, and he failed. And we reap the consequences. That might not seem fair. But people represent us whether we want them to or not. The Patriots represent New England whether you like the team or not. (And if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) Whether you voted for our president or not, he leads our nation. We didn’t choose our military leaders and personnel, but they serve on our behalf. Adam represented all humanity and he failed. And if we were in his place, we would fail, too.
But the Bible refers to Jesus as the “second Adam.” And he succeeds where Adam failed. Unlike Adam, Jesus always obeyed God the Father. As we’ll see next week, when he was tempted, he didn’t sin. He was and is the perfect priestly king, the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). In Romans 5:12–21, which we don’t have time to read this morning, the apostle Paul says that death came to the world through Adam, but grace and life come through Jesus. Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but Jesus’ obedience leads to righteousness. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that death came through Adam, but those who are united to Jesus will be resurrected to eternal life, just as Jesus was resurrected after he died on the cross (1 Cor. 15:20–22; see also vv. 42–49).
Paul’s point is that every human being will be represented by the first Adam or the “second Adam,” Jesus. We start out in life being represented by the first Adam. We have a sinful nature, one that leads us to disobey God and not love him as we should. But if we put our faith in Jesus, we are represented by him. His perfectly righteous life is credited to us. If we are united to Jesus, it’s as if we never sinned. And his death pays the penalty for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. And because Jesus rose from the grave in a body that can never die again, all who are united to him will one day be raised in indestructible, immortal bodies and they will live in restored world, one that is perfect, one that has no sin, no diseases, no wars, and no death.
And all of this leads us to a choice. We must choose to trust in Jesus, to rely on him as our champion, our representative. Or we must choose to rely on our efforts. In a similar way, we will choose to believe that Jesus is Lord and King, and that his way of life is right and true. Or we will trust that we are own kings and queens, and we will build our little kingdoms. You can’t have it both ways. To go back to our sports analogy, if we want to have a share of an NFL title, Tom Brady has to be our champion. He is the star of the show, we are not. And if we trust in Jesus, we’ll see that our lives should be centered on him.
As we close today, I want us to think about three ways to apply this message.
The first thing we should do upon hearing this message is simply to trust in Jesus. He is unique. There is no one like him. He is an example, but he’s much more than an example. He is our champion. If you don’t really know Jesus, if you’re not sure whether you have put your faith in him, I would love to talk to you about that.
The second thing is that we can learn from Jesus’ example. In this passage, God sends the Holy Spirit when Jesus obeys and prays. God’s blessings come often in response to obedience, which includes prayer. Prayer is a big theme for Luke. Jesus prays at important times in his life. So do his followers. And God often responds in big ways. That doesn’t mean that if we pray, God will always respond the way we think he should. God can’t be manipulated. But after Jesus prayed, the Holy Spirit came on him. After Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers prayed (Acts 1:14), and then Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit on the church (Acts 2). If we want the Holy Spirit to do important things in our lives, we should obey God and we should pray.
Here’s one last thought. Whenever I read genealogies in the Bible, I think about how all those names represent real people who lived real lives. They had their own hopes and dreams, their own stories. But the important role they played was being part of the chain that connected Jesus to the first human being. All of us play a small role in God’s plans. We are but links in a very long chain, cogs in a large gear, bricks in a very big wall. Each of us must respond to Jesus personally. Each of us will be called to account by God one day. Each Christian will do his or her small part for God’s kingdom. It’s said there are no small actors, only small parts to play. Each person is made in God’s image. Therefore, each person matters. And each Christian is being remade into the image of God’s son (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4). Each Christian has an important role. We play the roles that God has assigned to us. Not all will be famous. Not all will be pastors or missionaries. But our lives matter. Our work matters. Our obedience matters. If we’re connected to Jesus, he has done all the work that is needed to reconcile us to God. That liberates us to work not for our salvation, but because of it. That frees us to work for God and the benefit of others.
So, let us follow Jesus’ example. But, more importantly, let us find our life in him. And when we trust Jesus, God says of us, “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.”
- From 1981–1997, the 49ers had a record of 195-68-1, won 13 division titles, played in 10 NFC Championships, and played in five Super Bowls, winning them all. From 2001–2017, the Patriots had a record of 209-63, won 15 division titles, played in 12 AFC Championships, played in seven Super Bowls, and won five of them. ↑
- J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 73. This book was originally published in 1923, yet much of the book is still quite timely. ↑
- Ibid., 70. ↑
- Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 80. ↑
- John the Baptist came to Israel to let them know that they had broken the law that God had given them. And all of us have broken God’s moral law. No set of laws has the power to save us, to transform us, or to pay for our sins. But there’s a passage in Romans, at the beginning of chapter 8, where Paul gives us a hint of what it means for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1–4).Jesus came “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” though he was not sinful. And when he died on the cross, God the Father “condemned sin in the flesh.” Jesus’ perfect life and his sacrificial death on the cross fulfilled “the righteous requirement of the law.” ↑
- There are only forty-two generations listed in Matthew (Matt. 1:1–17). It’s clear that Matthew skips some generations, probably for numerical reasons. Jewish people at that time found significance in numbers. The number seven was considered a perfect number, a number that represents completeness. Forty-two is a multiple of seven. But it’s also a multiple of fourteen, and if you assign numbers to the three Hebrew consonants that spell the name “David,” you get the number fourteen. (In the Hebrew alphabet, D = 4, V = 6, D = 4). This may be another way of paying homage to David and showing that Jesus is the promised King that will reign forever. ↑
- Someone could say, “John Doe is my father” and “Jim Doe is my father” without contradiction as long as that person was not claiming to have two biological fathers. (Each of us only has one biological father.) If one father is biological and the other adoptive, there is no contradiction. If Matthew and Luke were tracing different types of fathers in their genealogies, then their genealogies would be very different. ↑
- https://wbcommunity.org/contradictions. ↑
- Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 565. ↑
- Ibid., 565 n. 26. ↑
- For more information on the opening chapters of Genesis, see the first few sermons in the sermon series, “What Is the Story of the Bible?” (https://wbcommunity.org/story-of-the-bible). ↑
In describing Jesus’ baptism and in listing a genealogy that connects Jesus to Adam, Luke shows that Jesus is the true Son of God. Listen to this sermon on Luke 3:21-38, preached by Brian Watson, to find out why this matters.
Do you know what a “bucket list” is? A “bucket list” is a list of things to do before you kick the bucket. According to one website, here are the top ten bucket list ideas:
1. See the Northern Lights.
3. Get a tattoo.
4. Swim with dolphins.
5. Go on a cruise.
6. Get married.
7. Run a marathon.
8. Go zip-lining.
9. Go scuba diving.
10. Ride an elephant.
I looked at a few similar lists and there’s a lot of overlap on these lists. Most of top bucket list items involve travel, seeing something unique, and achieving something significant. So, other bucket list items might involve traveling to all fifty states or all seven continents, seeing the Great Wall of China, and writing a book.
What’s on your bucket list? What do you want to see or do before you die?
Today, we’ll look at how two older Jewish people reacted to the baby Jesus. It seems they both had a very short bucket list, a list that had only one item: See the Messiah. They wanted to see God’s anointed one, the one who would redeem God’s people, who would bring the promised “consolation of Israel.”
This morning, we’ll be reading Luke 2:22–40. Before we start reading, I’ll briefly remind us of what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke begins by explaining how this book is a work of history. He wrote of the amazing things that God had done through Jesus, and his history was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The first chapter of Luke showed us how the angel Gabriel promised that two special children would be born. First, John the Baptist would come. He would urge Israelites to turn back to God and he would prepare the way for the second child. The second child is Jesus, who was conceived in a virgin’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the anointed one, the one who would inherit the throne of David, the one who would rule forever, the “Son of the Most High.”
The second chapter of Luke begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman emperor, Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken. The census required that Jews travel to their ancestral homeland. Joseph was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, who was from Bethlehem. So, Joseph and Mary traveled to the “city of David.” Jesus was born there amid animals, in a very humble and perhaps quite filthy environment. This is not the way you would expect such a special child to be born, but it shows that God comes to us in our filth.
After Jesus is born, angels appear to some shepherds and tell them the good news that the Savior, the Lord, the Christ is born. They announce that there is peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. The shepherds race to discover that indeed the Christ is born. They glorified and praised God for all that they had seen.
In today’s passage, we find out what happens when Joseph and Mary bring their child to the temple in Jerusalem. They bring Jesus there to fulfill the law that God gave to Israel. When they do, two older Israelites are overjoyed.
Let’s first read verses 22–24:
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
Why do Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple? They brought him there to fulfill two things written in the law of the Old Testament. One is the purification that must occur after a woman gives birth. The book of Leviticus says that after a woman gives birth to a male child, she is unclean for seven days. Then, the child should be circumcised on the eighth day, which is when Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). Then, for the next thirty-three days, the woman shall not touch anything holy or enter the temple. At the end of this time of purification, she shall bring a sacrifice: a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. If she couldn’t afford a lamb, she should offer two pigeons or two turtledoves (Lev. 12:1–8). The law says, “And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (Lev. 12:8).
To our ears, all of that sounds very strange. Why would a woman be ceremonially unclean after childbirth? Isn’t giving birth a good thing? Well, we can’t understand this idea without having some concept of the holiness of God. According to the Bible, God is holy. That means he is transcendent and pure. The presence of sin in the world taints us, however, and makes us unholy. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no blood shed. In fact, one of the consequences of sin is that childbirth would become painful (Gen. 3:16). If sin, which is a rebellion against God, never existed, life would be different. According to the law that God gave Israel, Israelites could offer sacrifices to atone for sin. In the book of Leviticus, other things that might not seem inherently sinful, like mold and mildew, could render something unholy. The idea is that the negative things in the world are the result of sin, and the holiness code of Leviticus taught the Israelites that if they were to approach God, they needed to become pure.
The second part of the law that Joseph and Mary fulfilled concerned the firstborn child. The firstborn Israelites belonged to the Lord. They were God’s and they needed to be bought back, or redeemed. This idea goes back to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. To free the Israelites, God sent ten plagues on Egypt. The tenth plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. The only way that anyone could avoid this fate was to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb on the door frame and lintel. Since God allowed the firstborn Israelites to be spared, they belonged to him (Exod. 13:2, 12–15). Later, the law required a redemption price of five shekels, which was equivalent to about six months of wages (Num. 18:16).
I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of these Old Testament laws. The point is that Joseph and Mary were obedient to God. They followed his law. The fact that they sacrificed two birds shows that they were not wealthy. When the present Jesus to the Lord, there’s no mention of their paying a redemption price. Perhaps they simply offered Jesus to God without paying the redemption price. The idea would be that Jesus is God’s, dedicated to his service. They might have been saying, “He is yours, not ours.”
Beyond these details, it’s interesting that Luke mentions Jerusalem, the temple, and the law. We already saw one scene at the temple, when Zechariah offered incense in the temple and the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Throughout both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the temple will play an important role. Of course, the temple was the center of Judaism. It was where God was worshiped, where God’s special presence dwelled, and where various sacrifices were offered. But Jesus came to replace the temple. He is the true temple, the dwelling place of God. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). He is the true sacrifice; in fact, he is the true High Priest. He’s also the “place” of worship for Christians. We don’t have to go to a particular building or city to worship God. We can meet God if we are united to Jesus.
Luke also emphasizes the law. Five times in this passage we’re told that Joseph and Mary did things according to the law (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 26, 39). We saw last week that the law of Caesar Augustus brought them from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–7). But it is the law of the Lord that brings them to Jerusalem, and there is no doubt that the law of the Lord is greater than the law of any human ruler.
The fact that Joseph and Mary observed God’s law shows that they were faithful Israelites. But it also has a greater theological significance. According to the apostle Paul, “[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus came to obey the law perfectly, which is something that no other Israelite did, something that no other human could do or did do. And he came to do away with the law. That doesn’t mean that he came to put an end to morality, or moral principles. But the particular set of laws that God gave to Israel wasn’t intended to be permanent. It revealed their sin, it taught them important principles, and it prepared them for the coming of the Messiah.
The law is superseded by the Holy Spirit. It’s no surprise that Luke would emphasize the law and the Holy Spirit in the same passage. The age of the law was passing away, and the age of the Holy Spirit was arriving. We see this in the next several verses. Let’s read about a man named Simeon. I’ll read verses 25–32:
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
I want to explore three things in this passage. One concerns who Simeon is. We’re told he was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” We’re also told the Holy Spirit was on him, the Holy Spirit told him he wouldn’t die before seeing the Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit led him to the temple to see Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God, and he is very active in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. We’re not told how old Simeon is, but we get the sense that he was advanced in years. It seems like he had been waiting for years.
The second thing I want to point out what Simeon was waiting for. He was waiting to see the “consolation of Israel.” The Greek word translated as “consolation” is παράκλησις (paraklēsis). It’s sometimes translated as “comfort,” and that reminds us of passages in the Old Testament that promised God would bring comfort to Israel. The most famous is Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Another passage is Isaiah 49:13:
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.
That Greek word is also related to the word παράκλητος (paraklētos), which Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit. The word is often translated as “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). God will bring comfort and consolation to Israel by means of the Holy Spirit. And Simeon knew that the day of consolation had arrived. The Messiah, anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, had come to redeem his people.
The third thing I want to point out is what Simeon said. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and he sings the fourth hymn that we find in the first two chapters of Luke. It is known as Nunc Dimittis, which is a Latin translation of the first two Greek words, “now dismiss.” Simeon tells God that he can now depart in peace, for he has seen the salvation of God. He knows that Jesus is the Savior, the one who will bring peace between God and his people. And this salvation is not just for ethnic Israel only. It is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. The idea of a “light to the nations,” or a “light to the Gentiles,” also comes from the book of Isaiah (42:6; 49:6; 60:3). It had always been God’s plan to save Gentiles through his Messiah.
Before we move on, we should wonder that an old man would have spent so much time waiting to see a baby. We should wonder that this man, after seeing this baby, said that he could now “depart,” which might be a euphemism for death. He is saying to God, “I can now die. I have seen what I wanted to see.” Some people want to see other countries or famous landmarks before they die. I bet there were some people in Red Sox Nation who said, before 2004, “God, just let me live long enough to see the Sox win the World Series.” They hadn’t won it all in a lifetime (from 1918 to 2004). But World Series don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And as great as it is to travel, to see unique sites, traveling doesn’t take care of our biggest needs. Traveling can’t promise eternal life. Various achievements, like running a marathon or writing a book, can’t make us right with God or give our souls rest.
But what Simeon saw was indeed the greatest thing anyone could see. He saw God in the flesh. Jesus is not just the Messiah, but he is the Son of God. That means he is divine. He is and has always been God the Son. And when he was conceived, he added a second nature. He was and is truly God, but he also became—and still is!—truly human. He came to fulfill the law for us and he came to pay the penalty for our sin for us. He came as the true sacrifice for sin. Simeon saw this, and he knew that his life was complete.
This is the hope of Israel. It is what faithful Israelites waited centuries to see. And it is the hope of all the nations. Simeon’s words echo another passage in Isaiah. This is what Isaiah 52:7–10 says:
7 How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Simeon serves as a watchman, waiting for the salvation of Israel to come. And he sings of the good news that God has brought salvation to his people. He saw that the Lord had come to Zion, Jerusalem, to save. He knew that salvation would extend to people of all nations. He rejoiced and was glad.
Simeon’s words caused Joseph and Mary to marvel. But he wasn’t done. Let’s read verses 33–35:
33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
So far in Luke, the news of Jesus’ coming has been all joy. But now there’s an ominous tone. Simeon says that the child has been appointed for the fall and rising of man, that he will be opposed, that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul, and that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Simeon says that Jesus will be a polarizing figure. Some people will receive him and others will oppose him. In the book of Isaiah, it says that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa. 8:14–15). And yet God says, also in Isaiah,
Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste’ (Isa. 28:16).
In the New Testament, this language is applied to Jesus (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6–8; cf. Luke 20:17). The idea is that for some, Jesus is a stumbling stone. He is offensive. People trip over him and fall. But others will build their lives on Jesus. He will be their rock. And he is the cornerstone of the church.
Jesus himself said that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34). That does not mean that Jesus was violent. What Jesus meant was that he will divide people. Some will trust him and others won’t. It was true two thousand years ago and it remains true today. Jesus knew that. Simeon knew that. But I doubt that Mary and Joseph knew that when Jesus was just a baby.
Jesus is divisive because he reveals our true condition. He said he is the light of the world (John 8:12). Light is a good thing. The light of the sun provides warmth. Without that light, there would be no photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, there would be no plant life. Without plant life, there would be no animal life. We wouldn’t be here. But light also reveals the truth, and a lot of people don’t want the truth about the spiritual conditions revealed. Jesus said,
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (John 3:19–21).
Jesus reveals that we’re sinners. He told his own brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). That’s a verse that most churches won’t read. But Jesus said it, and he did tell us we’re sinners who need to turn from our sin and turn to God.
Simeon also told Mary that this child would cause “a sword [to] pierce through your own soul also.” I can’t imagine how Mary took this news. I wonder what she thought. How would her soul be pierced by a sword? What does that mean? It probably refers to the pain she would experience as Jesus’ mother. Sometime after this event, Joseph and Mary would take Jesus to Egypt to hide from King Herod. Luke doesn’t tell us about this, but Matthew does (Matt. 2). Herod the Great heard that the “King of Israel” had been born in Bethlehem. That was a threat to his own rule. So, he had the male infants in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph about this and he took his family to Egypt. Next week, we’ll see an event that caused Mary great distress (Luke 2:41–52). But the greatest distress must have been caused by Jesus’ death. Mary was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. He was treated like the worst of criminals, an enemy of the state. And Mary had to witness her own son’s execution (John 19:25).
Jesus brings joy and comfort. But he also brings pain. In the end, that pain leads to greater joy for those who are united to Jesus. I’ll say more about that later.
But before I do that, let’s meet the other Jewish person who waited for the consolation of Israel. Let’s read verses 36–38:
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
At the same time, there was an old woman named Anna who was a prophetess. We’re told that she had been married for seven years and then lived as a widow. The ESV says she was married until she was eighty-four, but the original Greek could be translated “and then as a widow for eighty-four years.” If she had married quite young, perhaps at age thirteen (not unheard of for Jewish woman of that era), she would be over one hundred at this time. Either way, she lived as a widow for a long time. She spent every waking hour at the temple complex, waiting for the redemption of Israel. We’re not told her actual words, but we are told that she was a prophetess, and that when she saw Jesus at the temple, she gave thanks to God and told everyone else who was waiting for the redemption of Israel. God has come in the flesh as a baby, a baby would grow up to be Israel’s Savior and King.
After offering sacrifices and dedicating Jesus to the Lord, we’re told that Joseph and Mary moved back to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke is probably compressing the events. It’s likely that after this, they returned to Bethlehem for some time, then went to Egypt in exile, and only later moved to Nazareth. At any rate, let’s finish today’s passage by reading verses 39 and 40:
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.
We’ll talk more next week about how Jesus grew, became strong, and was filled with wisdom. But for now, I want us to think about a couple of things. One, let me return to that idea of a bucket list. What is on your bucket list? What do you want to see before you die? Could that something ever compare to seeing God in the flesh? Could that something ever compare to seeing God come to rescue his people? Jesus came to save his people. When he first came as a baby, he didn’t come to fix every problem in the world. But he came to fulfill God’s righteous demands, to obey God’s law where we have so often failed. And Jesus came to die to pay for the sins of all who will ever trust in him. Our bucket list items are so pathetic and trivial when compared to Jesus.
For those of us who know Jesus, let me ask this: What do you want to see God do before you die? Is there something you are waiting for God to do? Is there a way that you can work to make that a reality in your life?
Another way of asking this is to ask, why are you still alive? What does God want for you to do? God doesn’t just want us to live pleasant lives of comfort, to retire from work and just wait around. God has planned in advance good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Sometimes, we need to wait on God to do the impossible. But many times, we need to act. We should be faithful to do the things that God wants us to do, the things that are clearly stated in Scripture. Make those your bucket list items.
Those who are faithful wait on the Lord. And those who are faithful act on God’s word. Simeon and Anna were faithful. They waited. But they also acted. When the Spirit led Simeon, he went. Anna had been waiting at the temple. We might say she was actively waiting. And Simeon and Anna were blessed. The many decades of their lives had been a prelude to meeting Jesus. They were rewarded for their patience and their faithfulness.
Often in the Bible, we read of older people whose greatest moments came later in life. That was true for Abraham and Moses. It was certainly true for Simeon and Anna. You may be retired and in the last years of this life. But that doesn’t mean you’re finished doing God’s work. You may yet see God do amazing things in your life. We tend to think of our lives as winding down at the end. What if your six, seven, or eight decades of life have all been leading to something that is still ahead? What if the best is yet to come?
In fact, the best is yet to come. Even the old and the frail have hope that the best years aren’t behind, but ahead. Simeon and Anna saw Jesus in their latter years. Those who have put their trust in Christ will see their Redeemer. In their flesh, they will see God. But they won’t meet him as frail, weak, mortal beings. No, when Christians meet Jesus, they will see him with perfect eyes in glorious, immortal, resurrected bodies. They will live in a perfect world with him forever.
But for those of us who don’t know Jesus, or who perhaps are not quite committed to Jesus, I want to say something. Earlier, I said that Jesus is a polarizing figure. He produces division. People either embrace him or reject him. They will find him to be a stone of offense or a rock upon which they can build their lives. Which side are you on?
Simeon said that Jesus would cause the falling and rising of many. All of us are bound to fall. We will die. That is a fact. And we fall in the sense that we do things that are wrong. We sin against God and each other. The question is whether we will rise. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus in repentance, who confess their sin and ask for mercy will find forgiveness. They will rise. Those who humble themselves before God will be exalted. But those who refuse to do this will simply fall, with no rising. And that falling will continue forever.
Admitting our sin can be painful. Repentance can feel like a sword is piercing our soul. In fact, there are elements of the Christian life that feel painful. God often uses our pain to cause us to grow. He uses painful events in our lives the way a surgeon wields a scalpel. God causes us pain in order to heal us. But that pain is far better than an eternity of misery, of being cut off from God.
And Christianity is the only religion that says that God knows pain. He knows what it’s like to be cut off. He knows what it’s like to have a sword pierce him, at least metaphorically speaking. When the first human beings sinned against God, they were evicted from Paradise. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Then God placed cherubim, angelic creatures, to guard the path back to the Garden. And they wielded a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). The idea is that if someone were to try to get to Paradise, they would be cut down by the sword. We need someone to take the sword for us, to open up the path to Paradise so we can be reconciled to God. And that’s what Jesus did on the cross. He took the sword so that we don’t have to. He fell, bearing God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin so that we don’t have to. Yet after he fell, he rose from the grave. His resurrection guarantees that his work on the cross has the power to defeat sin and death. All who follow Jesus can follow him back to Paradise.
Many people oppose Jesus because they don’t want to be told they are evil, because they don’t want to accept his authority, because they don’t want to change. But Jesus is our only hope. He is the only one who can bring us comfort and joy. He fell so you can rise. He was pierced by the sword so that you don’t have to experience God’s condemnation. I urge you to follow Jesus. Trusting him should be at the top of your bucket list.
- https://www.bucketlist.net/ideas/#top10. ↑
- Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 161. ↑
- Compare this dedication to 1 Samuel 1:22–28, when Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord’s service. ↑
- “Caesar’s authority brings the family to Bethlehem (2:4); the law’s authority brings them to Jerusalem, the first time the city is mentioned in the narrative. Following the pattern of step parallelism, Luke conveys his conviction that God’s law is higher than the law of the emperor.” David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 131. “Step parallelism” means that two events run parallel to each other, but the second event is greater. In chapter 1, the parallels between John and Jesus show that while both are special, promised children, Jesus is greater. Here, the parallels show that God’s law is greater than Caesar’s. ↑
- I have italicized some of the key words that connect that passage to this one. ↑
After Jesus is born, his parents bring him to the temple to fulfill the law. There, two older Jewish people meet Jesus and praise God for what they have seen. It seems they waited their whole lives to see Jesus. What are you waiting for?
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 5:16-26 on August 30, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul tells us that the Christian must walk by the Spirit, who produces righteous fruit within us. Yet we still battle against the “flesh,” our old, sinful nature. Listen to find out how walking by the Spirit enables us to be like Jesus, whose life was full of the fruit of righteousness.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 2:15-21 on July 5, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul says that a person isn’t made right with God through works, but through faith. Once a person has faith in Jesus, that person is changed and it is now Christ who lives in that person. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.
Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 1:1-9 on June 14, 2015. What is the gospel? Why is this good news? How does it differ from other religions or ways of thinking about life? Listen to find out.