Last week I told you that the sermons over the past month have all really been one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. We started with a quick review of what we’ve talked about so far in the Heidelberg Catechism and how studying theology and doctrine will lead to greater love for God. We then moved onto talking about the attributes of God, beginning with one of the most complicated, that being that God is Triune – that the one true eternal God has revealed himself to be three distinct persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We then moved on to what is called General Revelation where I said that “God wants to be known” and even without the Bible He has shown Himself to humanity in obvious ways.
If you recall, I quoted one commentary which said it concisely:
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We studied Romans 1:18-20 which said it this way,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
This led us to talking about the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and why, in the face of what God’s General Revelation has shown us in Creation and Conscience, all humanity stands condemned. General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and that we have sinned against God. That’s the bad news.
But the good news is that God did not leave humanity condemned. His revelations about Himself are not merely general, but specific, what theologians call “Special Revelation”. He has given us more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and His plan to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to people and gave them dreams and visions. He performed miracles and appointed people to be His ambassadors on earth. He inspired people to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, we encounter who God is in the person of Jesus Christ who is the very person of God in human flesh.
Today, what I want to do is go through some more of the specific attributes of God that He tells us about Himself in the Bible. Beyond what we learn in Conscience and Creation, into the Special Revelation we have in scripture that tells us who God is in a much more specific way.
We are going to break these attributes into three sections. First, God’s attributes in relation to the whole world. Second, God’s attributes in relation to mankind. And third God in relation to Himself.
However, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list them and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to divide it into more helpful categories and then seek out not only what God has shown us about Himself, but what that means to us as an admonition (or warning), what it means to us as a comfort, and how we see it in the life of Jesus.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipotence
The first of God’s attributes in relation to the whole world, in fact, the whole universe, is that God is Omnipotent. This is from the Latin words OMNI, meaning “All” and POTENTIS meaning “powerful”. When we talk about a spice or a drug we talk about how potent it is, how powerful. God is Omni-Potent, all-powerful. Another good word is Almighty. Psalm 115:3 says,
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
To be omnipotent means that God has ultimate power, ultimate authority, and can do whatever He wants. He can create anything He wills and do anything He desires.
The story of Gideon from Judges 7 is a great illustration here. God calls a cowardly young man to lead an army against an invading nation. The enemy nation, the Midianites, had 135,000 soldiers and God told Gideon to raise an army to fight them. Gideon made the call and 32,000 people showed up. And here’s what happened,
“The LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’ ” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. And the LORD said to Gideon, ‘The people are still too many…” (Jdg 7:2–4)
And God whittles down Gideon’s army to 300 people to defeat Midian. Why did God do that? Verse 2 gives the answer. Because God wanted everyone to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the situation was so lopsided that the victory had to have been a miracle and therefore the glory belonged to Him.
We see this in the life of Jesus, of course, in His miracles. He turns water into wine, makes those who are blind from birth see, calms storms with a word, multiplies a small lunch to feed thousands, and even raises the dead. Hebrews 1:3 says that it is by the power of Jesus that the whole universe is sustained
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
The admonition here, the warning, is that we should humble ourselves before God Almighty. Our greatest allegiance, our biggest fear, our largest concern should be what God thinks, what God desires, what God has to say. Jesus said it this way, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28). This is why we sing so much about God’s power, might, and authority, because it is one of his chief attributes. When we worship, we are telling God his “worth” to us, meaning we are singing back to Him His own attributes and what they mean to us.
But if the warning here is that we ought to fear God above all else, the comfort is that because God is omnipotent, God is trustworthy and capable of helping and protecting us. He is not like humans or the petty ancient gods of old who grasp for power, are limited in their abilities, and are easily manipulated. If God wills it, it happens. Period. This is a comfort to us because that means that regardless of what is happening in our lives, no matter how difficult, God is in control of it, God has ordained it, God has allowed it, God can use it for His glory and our good.
This is one reason we are invited to and ought to pray to Him. He, above everyone else, is capable of helping. And He has promised to. One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith is that God invites us to pray and that through our prayers God makes things happen.
God in Relation to the World: Omnipresence
The second of God’s greatest attributes in relation to the world is that He is Omnipresent, meaning He is everywhere at the same time. This doesn’t mean that God is everything – God is not a tree, a mountain, a bug, a tidal wave – it means that God is everywhere. God is present everywhere in His creation at the same time, but is not part of His creation. God is at work in everything and in all places at the same time and there is nothing that can happen in this world that He is not present for. God is not like the ancient gods, restricted to temples or buildings or nations or peoples. There is nothing He does not see.
This also means that God cannot be circumscribed, or gone around. No one can draw a circle around God, or go behind His back. He also cannot be bound or tied down. His power and presence have no limit. He says in Jeremiah 23:23-24,
“Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
We see this most eloquently in Psalm 139:7–12. Turn with me there. Where the writer knows this and says,
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
In the past I’ve called this the Rorschach psalm because how you read it will depend on your relationship with God. The fact that God is everywhere at once, seeing everything, will either fill you with fear and dread and guilt, or comfort and peace.
Omnipresence is a little strange to talk about when it comes to the life of Jesus. He was and is eternal God, containing all the attributes of God, but added to Himself the attribute of human flesh. Jesus, without losing any of His godhood, added humanity to Himself. These are the dual natures of Christ, both human and divine at the same time. So that means that Jesus didn’t lose his Omnipresence. We’ll get into that more when we hit Question 47. But we see Jesus claim this in His promise to believers in Matthew 28:18-20 when he says to his disciples,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus has the authority of God and says that He will be with His disciples forever. That’s Jesus claiming Omnipotence and Omnipresence. But as I said, we’ll cover this more later.
So the admonition here, the warning, is to remember that we have no secrets before God. Our deeds, our sins are known to Him. We can hide from our friends, our spouse, our boss, we can even hide from ourselves, but we cannot hide from God. We may want to be like Adam and Eve and try to cover ourselves and hide, but it doesn’t work. God was there the whole time and saw everything. The warning is that we ought to live in that knowledge and it should temper our decisions.
But the comfort is that no matter where we are, God is always near. Over and over in the Old Testament and the New, God says to His people, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10, Jeremiah 1:8, Acts 18:10) God cannot be far off, ignoring you, turning His back on you, not understanding what you’re going through because it is contrary to His nature. He is Omnipresent and the knowledge of the presence of God, the nearness of God, the closeness of God is a comfort to the people who trust Him.
God in Relation to the World: Omniscience
The third of God’s attributes in relation to the world is that God is Omniscient. God is Omnipotent. God is Omnipresent. And God is Omniscient. OMNI, meaning “all” and SCIENTIA meaning “knowledge”. That’s where we get the word “Science”. When we do science, we are seeking to know something, to understand something, to come to conclusions about what it is, what it does, where it came from. God is OMNI SCIENTIA, Omniscient, All-Knowing. God knows everything that is past, present and future, in all places, that which is seen and which is unseen, even the most hidden thoughts in our heart before we even think them.
Look back to verse 1 in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it…. [Skip to verse 13]
For you formed my inward parts you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.”
Again, this is a little complicated in the life of Jesus, because there were times when it says He didn’t know things (Matthew 24:36), but we also see that He had supernatural knowledge. Multiple times He demonstrates that He knows the thoughts and motivations of the people around him (Matthew 9:4, John 6:64, John 1:48.) John 2:24-25 says summarizes it like this, “… he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” In Revelation 2:23 Jesus gives a warning to one of the churches saying, “…all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
The admonition here is that we should be mindful at all times that God not only sees our deeds, but knows our thoughts and motivations. Proverbs 16:2 says, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” Psalm 14:2 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
There is no point on putting on a show for God or anyone else. There’s no reason to pretend to be better or worse than you are. There’s no point in convincing everyone that you’ve got it all together. There’s no point in going through a bunch of religious rituals if you’re secretly in unrepentant sin. God knows your heart and has rejected your worship. There’s no point in doing a bunch of good deeds and saying prayers and giving to charity if it’s done to impress others, no matter how great people think you are. God knows you’re just an arrogant show-off and you get no reward from Him for it (Matthew 6).
God knows where your heart is at when you walk into this building for worship. He knows the conversation you had in the car, the thoughts in your mind while you sit here and all the ways that you are comparing yourself to and judging others. He knows, so there is no point in pretending to worship, pretending to pray, pretending to listen, pretending to believe, pretending to be happy, pretending to be a Christian because it gains you nothing. It is the truth that sets you free.
In Hebrews, it says that we should be persevering in our faith because God knows what we’re all about and we see that every time we open up the word of God. Turn to Hebrews 4. It says in Hebrews 4:11–13,
“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So stop pretending.
But the comfort of this knowledge is this: God knows everything we need and want, everything we feel, knows exactly what to do about it, and is willing to help. There’s no need to pretend with God, so that means we can be honest with Him about what we want, what we need, what we’re afraid of and what we hope for. He cares about all of that and is willing to do everything possible to help us to become who we were created to be. Jesus says that God already knows everything we need (Matthew 6:32), and the Bible says that Jesus knows how we feel.
Continuing to read in Hebrews 4:14 we see that not only does God know everything about us and therefore can judge us perfectly, but that His knowledge motivates Him to help us! Hebrews 4:14–16,
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
What allows us to pray, to come close to God when we are in need? The fact that Jesus not only perfectly knows everything we are going through, but has experienced it for Himself, and stands before God as our high priest, advocating on our behalf. This means that whatever is happening in our life, no matter how difficult or perplexing, is something God is doing to draw us closer to Him and teach us something – that along the way and in the end, God is not wasting anything and nothing is out of control. Or as Philippians 1:6 says it,
“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
I know that’s hard to understand sometimes. Especially when things are very difficult and there seems to be no reason. But at that moment when we are feeling hopeless, it helps for us to remind ourselves about who God is, what He is like, and what that means for us. We say to ourselves and to God – bow your head with me… maybe this can be your prayer too…:
“Lord, things feel bad right now. Darkness and confusion about. But God, you are Omnipotent. You are all-powerful, meaning that nothing is beyond Your ability and nothing can happen to me without Your permission. God, you are Omnipresent, meaning that you are with me no matter what and you see everything that is happening to me. And You are Omniscient, meaning You knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen as a result. I’m limited in my understanding, limited in my knowledge, but God, You are not. I recognize that because of your perfection You have no reason to harm me because You gain nothing from it. So instead, at this moment I will look to Jesus, my High Priest, the one who knows me, loves me, and has been where I am – the God who prays for me and advocates for me. Jesus, it doesn’t feel very good right now. I’m scared, alone, afraid, anxious, worried, lost – I feel guilty, shameful, and dirty – I am at my wit’s end and don’t know what to do. But I trust you. You are bigger than my fear and my need and my sin. I trust your power, your knowledge, your wisdom and your love to do what is best for me. Please help me not only know you are here but to trust you through this.”
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Our celebrity-obsessed culture struggles with understanding what it means to actually know someone. People seem to fall in love with, give their allegiance to, or utterly hate someone they’ve never met, simply because they’ve seen them in movies or on TV. Their agent and their publicist work hard to craft a certain public image for them, and there are many in the public that connect far too deeply with that image. They follow their every post, change their thinking to match, defend them at every turn, even cry at their funerals – but they don’t actually know that person – they only know the well-crafted public image.
As I’ve said before, getting to know someone takes time, effort, and risk. With families, friendships, marriages, or the people we work with, there always seems to be a little more that we can know about the people – and always room for surprises. You’ve probably experienced this. You think you know someone, have known them for years, and then they do something that completely surprises you. Your child, who used to need you for everything seems to suddenly grow up and now you need to actually schedule time with them because they have so many independent things going on. Your extroverted friend, who was always out, always staying up late, couldn’t care less about responsibilities somehow morphs into a mature adult. The person who you thought was rock solid in their faith and morals suddenly blows up their entire life when something terrible is exposed in them. Or the person, who you had pegged as a total screw-up, does something to completely change your view of them and all their idiosyncrasies are suddenly seen in a new light, and you are suddenly impressed by them.
The Apostles Creed
Last week I told you that we are entering a new section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is concerned with introducing us to the person, character, and attributes of God. It is framed by a study of the Apostles Creed. If you want to know more about that, visit my website and you’ll see the introductory sermons I preached on it. But to frame our discussion, and remind us of what it says, I want to read the Apostles Creed and then get into question 24 of the catechism. But first, a quick review:
If you recall, we got here from a discussion on what it means to have faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg builds its arguments question upon question so I could go all the way back to question one as summary, but let’s just go back to Question 20. It was about how salvation works and who gets to be saved from the consequences of sin. It said, “Are all men, then, saved by Christ Just as they perished through Adam?” And the answer was “No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
So if only those who have true faith in Jesus are saved, then Question 21 follows up with the natural next question: “What is true faith?” and question 22 with “What, then, must a Christian believe?” That makes sense, right? If faith in Jesus is the only way to be saved from our greatest misery, then what does it mean to have faith and what are we supposed to believe?
The answer to question 22 is “All that is promised us in the gospel, which the articles of our catholic and undoubted Christian faith teach us in a summary.” Which leads to the next logical question, number 23, “What are these articles?” That led us to question 23 where we read the Apostles Creed, an ancient summary of the most essential parts of what Christians must believe to be saved, which the Catechism explains in detail for the next series of weeks. It says,
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell. On the third day, he arose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
Getting to Know Someone
This leads us to question 24 which says, “How are these articles divided?” Before getting into the line-by-line discussion of the points of the Apostles Creed, Ursinus takes a step back and makes us look at the structure of the creed because it’s important. The answer is that the Apostles Creed is divided, “Into three parts: the first is about God the Father and our creation; the second about God the Son and our redemption; the third about God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification.” That’s critically important because it gives us an outline for our discussion on who God is.
When you meet someone for the first time there are a standard set of questions that everyone goes through, right? What’s your name? What brings you here? What do you do? They are standard, introductory questions and they give us a framework to work with. If the person says my name is “Bill Smith” or “Mary Johson” we move on to the next question. But if the person introduces themselves as “Thunderclap Nelson” or “Jürgen Schmidt” that immediately tells you something and you’ll probably dig a little further.
Once you know their name the next question tries to build some common ground. People usually start with either the weather – which everyone experiences and leaves very little room for argument – or builds that foundation on their common location: “What brings you here?” The background of that question is: Why are we in the same place? What common things do we have? What is the most basic foundation we can have for building this relationship? If you’re at a wedding and they say, “I’m a friend of the groom” you can start there. If you’re at a party and they say, “I came for the free food” that tells you something else.
The next, most common question, is “What do you do?”, right? Now that I know your name, and by extension maybe guess a little something about your ethnicity, history, and upbringing – and we’ve established a common thread for relationship – we both know the married couple, we’re both cheering for the same team, we both like the Fall weather – we usually ask what the person does for work? Why? Because it is more specific. It tells us how they spend their time, what they are interested in, what their skills are, gives us a peek into the kind of person they are.
If they say, “I’m a student” that tells you something. If they say, “I’m between jobs right now”, that tells you something else. If they say, “I’m a doctor”, that makes them see you in a certain light. If they say, “I work at a gas station, but I sell aromatherapy candles and dreamcatchers at local craft shows” that adds to the picture.
It’s the same thing when we look at the Heidelberg, the Apostles Creed, and the picture that God gives us of Himself in scripture. In the Bible He’s answering the same sorts of questions: This is my name. These are my nicknames. This is what I’m interested in. This is the work I do. These are my likes and dislikes. In the Bible God gives us the foundation upon which we can get to know and build our relationship with Him. And the Apostles Creed is a summary of what the Bible says. Who is God, what’s He like, what does He do? And it’s broken into three categories? Why? Because God presents Himself as a Triune being.
LD8b: The Trinity
That’s why question 25 is,
“Since there is only one God, why do you speak of three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”
The answer to which is
“Because God has so revealed himself in his Word that these three distinct persons are the one, true, eternal God.”
Why do Christians talk about the Trinity? Why do we say that the One, True God is three distinct persons? Because that’s what God has shown us in The Bible.
If you remember, I referenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” last week. He had a famous saying that is often repeated: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” That simply means that if you keep looking at the evidence and deducing what it means and what it can’t mean, then whatever you are left with must be what happened.
We see Trinitarian views of God all over scripture. In Genesis 1 we see God creating the world, but the Spirit of God as well, hovering over that which existed before creation (1:2). At Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew 3(:16-17) we see Jesus get into the water, the heavens open up, the Father Speak, and the Spirit of God descend like a dove.
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus prays to God the Father (John 17:1), but also does things that only God can do – He forgives sins (Luke 7:48), accepts worship (Matthew 2:11, 14:33, 28:9-10), commands demons (Matthew 8:28-34), and affects creation with a word by performing miracles like healing diseases and calming the storm(John 9, Mark 4).
The Gospel of John takes chapter after chapter to share what Jesus was teaching His disciples during the Last Supper, and it is incredibly Trinitarian. In Chapter 14 Jesus says that He is going to the Father to prepare a place and that no one can come there except through Him, but when Philip says, “Show us the Father”, Jesus replies
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (vs 9)
As His disciples grow more concerned about Jesus’ forthcoming death and ascension, Jesus comforts them by saying that when He leaves He will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit to be with them (John 15:26). Then He says something surprising,
“But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:6–7)
Jesus says that it is better for us that we have the Holy Spirit than Him standing right in front of us! But what does Jesus say at the end of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20, after He had died, rose again, and was about to ascend into Heaven and send the Holy Spirit?
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Are these contradictions? Was Jesus confused? Did the authors of the Bible get it wrong? No. I have a video I want to show you that was just released by The Bible Project and lines up perfectly with what we are learning here – and says it much better than I can.
I know this is a lot to take in – and in truth, the church has been trying to figure this out, and has been arguing about for a very long time – but, the concept of the Trinity is true. To know the one, true God, to speak accurately about Him, to speak Biblically about Him, we must speak of Him as Triune. Why? Because that’s what the Creed says? No. Because that’s how God has introduced Himself to us. It’s how God has told us to relate to Him. And so, to deny the Doctrine of the Trinity is to deny what God has said about Himself, and is therefore wrong. It’s misleading. To invent new ideas about Him is sin and error.
In the same way that it would be wrong to make up stories about you, call you by a different name, or give false testimony about you, it is wrong to do that for God.
To know God as Trinity means that God is a God of relationship, of perfect love, and has been in relationship for Eternity. God is not alone and did not create us because He was lonely. God was always in perfect relationship and always will be. But He desires to share that eternal love with us by letting us get to know Him and be in relationship with Him. That is comforting because that means that God isn’t needy, isn’t fickle, isn’t distant, isn’t unable to understand what it means to love someone – it means God loves you because God is love and always has been.
The Trinity is one attribute of God, but there are more. And these attributes, these truths about God, not only tell us something about Him but something important about how we can relate to Him. And now that we’ve covered the attribute of the Trinity a bit, I want to get into more of those attributes next week.
I’m a fan of the mystery genre. I like shows and movies where the main character, or the team, has a big problem to solve and has to use problem-solving ingenuity and cool technology to try to figure out what happened. One of my favourites is when there’s a missing person that needs to be found within a certain time or something bad will happen. The gathering of clues and working the problem is interesting, but once that sense of urgency is added, it becomes so much more interesting.
When someone goes missing in these shows, it’s often up to at least one of the investigators to interview the family and friends to sift for clues in the missing person’s personality and habits in order to figure out what might have led to the situation in the first place. What was this person like? What were their habits? Who are their friends? Did they have any enemies? Were they under any special stresses? Did they meet anyone new?
Right now I’m re-reading, for the third or fourth time, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and still loving it. Of course, he doesn’t have a team of investigators working with him when solving crimes, so he does all the interviewing himself.
Most times in the stories, the person with the problem comes into 221B Baker Street, sits down in front of the fireplace, Holmes sits back, closes his eyes and says, “Tell me what happened and spare no details.” Of course, for the sake of the story, the person usually has a very good memory of exact conversations and locations, but when they are done the great detective usually asks a few clarifying questions and says, “Ok, I’ll get back to you about this soon.” and invites the person to leave.
One of the best things about his friend Watson is his ability to stay quiet when Holmes is thinking because in a lot of the stories, Sherlock Holmes simply sits in one place – in his chair, a cab, a hotel room – and thinks. And Watson just sits there. Then, after a while, Sherlock with stand up, call Watson over, and say, “Let’s go, there’s only one thing I need to see before I know exactly what happened.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, at the beginning of the adventures says that there are three abilities that a great detective must have: The powers of observation, of deduction, and a great knowledge of past cases. Later, as he develops the character he adds two more: a good imagination and staunch determination.
I’ve actually mulled these over in my head quite a bit over the last couple years, and as I’ve been reading again. I think Doyle is absolutely right about these being necessary for a good detective, but I also think that they are also valuable for Christians who study theology.
The word Theology itself means simply, the study of God, right? To do theology is actually very much like a missing person case from those TV shows or a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Theologians, like detectives, search through the evidence around them to try to discover and understand all that they can about God – and that certainly needs the abilities to critically observe all the evidence, to be able to rightly deduce its meaning, and to have a vast and growing knowledge of history and philosophy and other studies. They need to be able to use their imaginations to put the immensity of trying to understand such eternal and sometimes paradoxical things together, and of course, the determination to keep working at it when it all seems too impossible to ever grasp.
But it’s worth it. There is something especially unique and pleasant about studying the person and the attributes of God.
The Joy of Studying God
Proverbs 9:10 says that
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.”
Remember talking about Psalm 119:9-11 which says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word. With all my heart I have sought You; Do not let me wander from Your commandments. Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.”?
You see the interplay between reading the Word and meeting God because even though Psalm 119 is a love song about the Bible, but it’s just as much a song about the joy of studying God, because it is through God’s Word that we encounter the person of God.
And it goes the other way too. As Psalm 14 begins, and which Romans 1 echoes and expands,
“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.”
Part of what it means to be a Christian, part of the way we worship God, demonstrate our love for Jesus, and participate with the Holy Spirit is to try to “understand God”, to “seek after God”. What does that mean but to try to track him down? Like Sherlock Holmes following the evidence to solve the crime and discover whodunit, we follow the revelations of God to do the same – to answer questions like: Who created everything and why? What is the purpose of this world and what is my purpose as an individual? What is God like? What does He want? What does He expect of us?
That’s part of what we’re doing as we study the Heidelberg Catechism – we’re following the evidence, the apologetic, the arguments for not only whether God exists, but who He is, what He is like, and what that means for us.
It began where we must begin, with an explanation of why there is misery in our world and how that misery can be fixed. After all, mankind is nothing if not selfish and is constantly asking the question, “What do I get out of it?”. And so it starts with explaining our greatest problems and how those problems are only solved by Jesus Christ. It explains the depth of our grief and then presents Jesus as the exclusive answer.
But then it must defend that exclusivity, right? What makes Jesus special? Why Him? And what does it mean to have faith in Him alone? And once those questions are answered, presenting faith in Jesus as the only way of salvation, inviting people to become Christians, the author of the Catechism does what any investigator would do: starts digging into the specific details. In question 22 it asks, “What, then, must a Christian believe?”
As we move through the catechism the discussions become more and more specific beginning a line by line study of the Apostles Creed. It’s not enough to know the crime and whodunit. Remember, a good investigator, a good detective, a good theologian, must do more. They must observe as many details as they can, even to the minutia that no one sees. They must seek to deduce all they can about the means and motives behind what happened. They must meditate and study history so they can gain greater knowledge of how this has been seen in other areas of life. They must apply their imagination that they might try to experience what they are learning for themselves and understand it on a deeper level. And they must show the dogged determination to keep digging until there is no more gold to be mined from their study.
Studying Details Deepens Our Love
And that’s what Ursinus does in this catechism, especially in his commentary – and more-so those theologians who have come after. They dig and dig and defend and imagine and explain and apply all they can so that the Christians who are reading and listening can better discover the God they worship, the Saviour they follow, and the Spirit that abides in them.
Why though? Why do all this work? Sherlock Holmes is asked this question often too. He spends hours sifting through pieces of evidence, lays on the grass studying a footprint for what seems like far too long, speaks of the tiniest little things – like cigar ash or someone’s shoelaces – as though they are of the most immense value. And he is often mocked by other detectives for it.
That happens to a lot of theologians and studious Christians too. In fact, it happens to a lot of people that become fascinated with a subject. Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You find interest in something – doesn’t matter what it is: art, chemistry, weather patterns, history, fishing. And as you learn, you get more and more into the minutia, the details, the obscurity of the subject. But the more you learn about the details, the more they fascinate you, the more important you realize they are. But when you try to explain it, others mock or get bored.
An art student walks into a museum and looks at a painting. Everyone else sees simply a picture of a dish, or a face, or a meadow, appreciate the colours and a couple details and then walks away. But then the art student walks up and begins to become fascinated with the thickness of the paint, the intricacy of the brushstrokes, the changes of momentum and how the thickness of the paint interacts with the canvas and the light. They pull out a magnifying glass and ooh and aah over the smallest corner of the painting – and everyone around them thinks their nuts.
The average people can sit around and talk about historical events like 9-11 or D-Day or Napoleon’s conquests, but a history buff can spend hours talking about how incredibly important the invention of paper currency was. They can argue the importance of the sextant vs the astrolabe vs the compass to ancient mariners – and while everyone around them is wilting like flowers, they’re enjoying every second!
My point is that learning the minutia, the details, about something you love doesn’t get confusing or boring, it actually deepens your love for that thing. It works in relationships too. In a good marriage, the two are consistently learning more about the other. They study one another, ask the other questions about their history, their current interests, their pains and their plans. And after 20, 30, 40 years, because people are such intricate creatures, there are still surprises, still things to learn. And as that knowledge grows, so does the love. One way you can tell that someone loves you, or that you love someone, is by how many questions they ask you about yourself, or how much you want to know about them. And in the same way, one way you can tell that someone doesn’t care is using you, or has lost interest, is when they don’t ask you personal questions. Love makes a person want to know more.
So this pursuit, this study of God, isn’t just about amassing knowledge. It’s not about getting the right answers. It’s not even about being able to defend our faith when it’s attacked by doubts or unbelief. The greatest reason we study God is to deepen our love for God.
Certainly, in the study of God, we gain much. As the scriptures, we read said: we gain wisdom for life, knowledge of lofty things, a peace and security knowing God is trustworthy. We gain an appreciation for purity and righteousness and desire to do good. But more than all that, we gain a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.
Jesus, in the High Priestly Prayer He prayed before He was betrayed and arrested, began like this:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:2-3)
When Jesus came it was to save us from sin and death and give us a path to eternal life. We gain access to eternal life through faith and belief in Him. What must we believe? That’s question 22, right? We believe the gospel. What is the Gospel? The gospel is the knowledge of who God is and what God has done through Jesus. Which is why Jesus defines eternal life as the continuing and growing knowledge of “the only true God, and Jesus Christ”.
As God works in us to grow our knowledge of the gospel, so our faith in Him grows. As we submit to Him in prayer and study and our knowledge of who God is growing, our desire for and ability to worship grows. As we talk to Jesus and learn about Jesus, our humility and maturity and love for others grow. As we learn more about the work of the Holy Spirit within us, our peace and security and trust grow, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and we discover the purpose of our life.
And each of these new discoveries causes us to grow more in love with God. We learn to appreciate and embrace His justice, holiness, and discipline. We appreciate more and more His patience, grace, and fatherly heart. As we reflect on who He is, we see ourselves and everyone else around us for who we are – not only wretched sinners in need of grace but special works of art that were lovingly fashioned by a perfect Creator.
But this only comes if we are willing to learn. That growth only comes if we are willing to humbly admit that we don’t know everything about God, or the world, or ourselves. It means humbly coming before God’s general and specific revelations and trying to see what He wants to show us – not trying to bend it into what we want to see.
Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging – the introduction to the Trinity and the Attributes of God – and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality. I ask you, over the next while, to cultivate within yourself those attributes of a good detective so that we can not only grow in the knowledge of God together but also grow in love for God and each other.
How many here have Instagram? I do. I’m pretty much done with Facebook these days, and I’ve mostly shifted over to Instagram. I like it a little more because it’s a little more dumbed down. There’s not as much going on in the feed as there is on Facebook. It’s just a stream of pictures, comics, and quotes that I can thumb through, and then double if I like.
Most of the stuff on there, and I’m assuming this is how it works for you too, I just scan past and never think about again. But there was one quote that I saw recently that caused me to pause and has stuck in my brain. It’s a quote from a theologian named Steven Lawson.
It goes like this:
“Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I tried to find the context for the quote, whether it was a sermon or a book or something, but couldn’t. And that’s ok because this short sentence is powerful enough on its own. The background is likely the famous song Amazing Grace which starts, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
And both of those echo what we read in Ephesians 2:1-9. Please turn there and listen to how we are described before Jesus saves us:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Here we read how God sees us before we are saved, before He resurrects our hearts, before we admit we are sinners and accept Jesus as our Saviour. He sees us as dead in our sins, sons and daughters of hell, workers of disobedience to whom evil comes so naturally, we don’t even notice it. He sees us as His enemies, deserving of wrath, and condemned. Meaning that even the good we thought we were doing, wasn’t good at all, but actually worked against God. (Isa 64:6; Romans 1)
And yet, despite being a dead, wretched, lost, blind, enemy of God – He shows us an incomprehensibly great kindness by sending His only Son, trading His Son for us on the cross, and accepting his death for our sake. He then cleanses us from unrighteousness, comes to live inside us, and promises that from now on we will be with Him forever. And what is the cost of this great salvation? What must we do? Good deeds? Give money on Sundays? Go to church? Punish ourselves? No. Jesus completely paid the price, all we must do is believe He did it. That’s why we’re here, singing, giving, serving, and studying His Word today, right?
More Wrath More Grace
BUT, here’s the thing. Steven Lawson was right. “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” It’s almost a mathematical equation. The more you understand how much wrath God had prepared for you, how much trouble you were in, the more amazing you will understand His grace and forgiveness and the work of Jesus to be. BUT, the opposite is true too. The more you think you deserve God’s grace, the less amazing you’ll think it is.
We just had that tornado touch down in Dunrobin outside of Ottawa, right? Every time something like that happens in the news I hear someone say the same thing, “Nothing like that ever happens around here. We live in such a boring place. I wish we would have something cool happen like a tornado or hurricane or something!”
I promise that no one in Dunrobin is thinking that way. None of the people who the tornado missed are jealously looking at their neighbours house and wishing it would have wiped them out. None of the parents are looking at those with terrified, injured children think, “Wow, my family is so boring. I wish my kid had been almost killed by a tornado.”
Why? Because they saw firsthand the devastation, the damage, the wrath of the storm. Because it touched them they have a respect for it, fear of it, and for many, a thankful heart that it wasn’t worse.
Those who are far from the storm, safe in their homes, watching it on the news laugh at the storm, mock the storm, even wish the storm upon themselves for fun. Why? Because they have not felt its fury. But those who were in it, closest, who were holding each in a basement other while the storm ripped their house apart, they respect the wrath. I watched a video of a man who was in his home with his daughter when the tornado hit. It ripped off the roof of their house, and his daughter went flying up. He grabbed her little hand as she was being pulled into the storm, and held on for dear life until it passed. That man isn’t at home joking about wanting the storm to come to his town. Why? Because he felt the wrath of the storm.
The Gospel Balance
Christians are often criticized because we talk too much about sin. We are sometimes characterized as being joyless, fun-sucking, lemon-eating, sourpusses who spend too much time thinking about how bad and undeserving and guilty we are. The church is sometimes seen as a guilt factory where people who come in needing some help or encouragement are told instead that everything is their fault and that they should actually feel worse. And in some cases, that can be true. Some churches, some preachers, even me on occasion, concentrate too much on the bad news. Which is why there are so many that refuse to talk about the bad news at all.
People generally don’t like feeling guilty, shameful, wretched, blind, or lost – so they avoid places, like the church, where those feelings happen, and instead, seek out places that affirm them. They join groups that make them feel good about their life choices, feel accepted no matter what they’ve done, encourage them to do it more, and get told that they should never have any bad feelings about it. This is great when a person is trying to lose weight, learn a craft, study for exams, or get free from an addiction – but it works the other way too. Alcoholics go to bars to be surrounded by people who won’t judge them, addicts go to clubs to be with people who do what they do, violent people seek out people who want to be violent with them, sexual sinners seek out people who sin like they do and won’t criticize them, and argumentative jerks go to online chat groups…
What they want is to get rid of the feeling of guilt, shame, and fear that what they are doing is wrong. They want to be surrounded by people who will say: “Despite how you feel, despite the warnings in your head, despite your feelings of guilt and shame, keep doing it. You’re fine. You’re good. You were built this way. You deserve it. Your excuses are enough reason. You’re the exception. All of your actions are justified – because you are just like us. And if enough people say that it’s ok, good, right, beautiful, helpful, and healthy – then we can start to believe that. And we’re going to make sure everyone else believes it too.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ exists within a paradox where guilt meets grace. There is a tension in Christianity that we all hold at the same time – and it is in that tension that we must live in order to create within us a heart of praise and thanksgiving. Christians exist in the tension between God’s Righteous Holy Wrath against us sinners who deserve Hell and the mystery of God’s Amazing Grace.
We hold in our minds, at the same time, the knowledge that we are dead, wretched, lost, blind enemies of God who have utterly rejected Him, with flesh that keeps pulling us towards sin, loving sin and self too much, and failing God every day – and the knowledge that somehow, for some reason that we will never understand, God loves us so much that He traded His Son for us so that we could be with Him forever (Rom 11:28-36). Or as Romans 5:6-8 says it,
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
That quote that I mentioned before, “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” could be restated, “Grace cannot amazing to you unless you know how wretched, lost, blind you actually were.”
That’s why Christians spend so much time talking about sin – because we know the damage it does and the consequences of not taking it seriously. That’s why Christians spend so much time praying. Because we know that we can’t really trust ourselves, our minds, our hearts to lead us the right way. That’s why Christians don’t run from guilt, but instead walk through that guilt into grace. If we ignore the guilt, we cannot get to forgiveness. Because when we feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid of God’s wrath, it forces us to go to Jesus to deal with it.
Jesus the Advocate
My daughter Eowyn memorized a verse this week that I really needed to hear. As she was working on it, I was going through a tough time, making some bad decisions, getting really down, Satan accusing me over and over in my ear – and she kept coming to me, handing me the book, and reviewing the verse to make sure she had it right. So I had to read it multiple times that day and eventually is sunk in. It’s from 1 John 2:1 and here’s what it said:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
What a healing balm that has been to my soul this week. The apostle, in this book repeatedly calls Christians, “My little children”. I like that and needed to hear it so much. It’s a reminder that as grown up and smart as I think I am, spiritually I’m still a child. I’m not all grown up and mature, like my Heavenly Father. I’m still learning, growing, making mistakes, and tripping over my own feet. And God knows this. When I sin, He’s not looking down on me in wrath. No, I’m a Christian. I’m forgiven. I’m one of His kids.
Sometimes I still get afraid that God is mad at me for the things I’ve done. That God is punishing me. But then I remember Romans 8:15–16 which says,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God…”
I have to remind myself: I’m a Christian. God is my dad. When I sin, He still loves me. I’m no longer under His wrath. And as His kid, His child, I don’t need to be afraid of Him.
People tell me sometimes that I can be sort of scary. I have angry eyebrows, a pointy beard, and a loud voice and that freaks people out. Do you know who isn’t scared of me? My kids. They’ve seen my face, heard my voice, and know me – so they don’t get scared when I talk – even when I want them to be! I raise my voice during a conversation for some reason, people turn their heads and wince, babies cry, sirens start going off in the distance – and my kids laugh. Why? Because they know I’m not scary. I’m their dad. That’s how God wants me to see Him too.
Next it says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
God doesn’t want us to sin. Part of the reason He wrote the Bible was to show us our sin. The Law of the Old Testament, the stories of Israel, the hard-hearted Pharisees, the cruel Romans, the arrogant Greeks, the false teachers, the superstitious pagans – we see ourselves in all of them, and we see our sin. The Bible shows us our faults and then guides us on how to make it right. God doesn’t want us to sin. He still hates sin and hates seeing His children doing it – and will oftentimes discipline us so we can learn about the wrong we’re doing.
Later in chapter 3:9-10 we read:
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”
Though we’ll never be free of our sinful natures until we get to heaven, God doesn’t want us to be “practicing” sin. We fall, we fail, we develop a bad habit, we go to the wrong place for comfort, that happens to all of us. But when Christians do it, we recognize it as sin. That means we don’t want to do it, even though we just did. We want to change, want to be holier, and we ask for God’s help. But sometimes we keep falling, right? Does that mean God hates us? Does that mean we’re not really Christians? That’s what Satan the Accuser wants us to think (Rev 12:10).
No, there’s an amazing but in there. It says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
And I’ll keep reading,
“He is the propitiation for our sins…”
If a human being was creating a religion what would that say? It would go, “I’m writing down all these things so that you won’t sin. But if you do sin, boy are you in trouble! You’d better not! Jesus won’t be happy with you!” But that’s not what it says, is it?
It says that Jesus is our Advocate. In other words, Jesus is our lawyer. He takes up the cause for us before God the Judge. He presents our defence, speaks to God for us, He mediates the conversation with God and He’s on our side. He’s our Advocate before God. And God listens because Jesus is “righteous”, meaning He is perfect. More than this, Jesus is also “the propitiation for our sins”. That means that Jesus was the sacrifice who bore God’s wrath against us so that we could be free.
This is where the understanding of “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.” comes into play again. Christians sin. Someone said to me recently that they didn’t want to come to church because they feel like a hypocrite. I told them, “It’s ok. We’re all hypocrites.” What did I mean? I meant that even though all the Christians in the church say we hate sin, we all keep on sinning. All of us. We keep sinning, keep doing things our own way, keep denying God and living as practical atheists, keep being selfish and bitter and trying to steal God’s glory. But what happens when we sin? Do we lose our salvation? Or does God simply forget about it? Does He pretend it didn’t happen? Do His kids get away with sin?
No. Do you know what happens? A Christian sins, again and again, and Jesus, our Advocate, says, “Father, don’t count that sin against them. Remember, I took the punishment for that sin. You poured your wrath out on me for that. They are still free.”
When Jesus was on the cross, God looked at the entire timeline of human existence, at the sins of all who would believe – from Adam and Eve to the very last believer at the end of time – potentially billions of people and billions upon billions of sins – and He poured the exact amount of wrath out on Jesus to pay for all of them. All our sins in our past and all the sins in our future are not forgotten by God – they are paid for by Jesus.
Christians who recognize that they are sinners, and how deep that sin goes, are people who recognize the immensity of the wrath that Jesus took for us – and recognizing that allows us to begin to understand how Amazing His Grace really is.
And understanding that grace, that undeserved merit, and then seeing all the other good things God gives us which we absolutely do not deserve – changes our lives. It makes us more willing to forgive others. Knowing that when we were enemies of God He forgave us allows us to forgive our own enemies. Knowing how generous God has been with us allows us to be generous with others. Knowing that Jesus came to serve us makes us want to serve others.
That’s why Christians take time to contemplate our sin and the wrath we deserved because of it – but the grace we got instead – it causes us to praise, to worship, to give thanks.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Chances are when you sit at the table with whoever you are celebrating with, you’re going to say grace before you eat. At least I hope you do. It’s an important habit all Christians should have – to stop for a moment and recognize that where you are and what you have is a good practice to develop humility. But when you do sit down and say grace, when you think about all the things you are thankful for, I want you to remember that that list is much longer than you realize. One Christian leader said it this way: “Everything above Hell is grace.” (Bill Stafford)
Allow that thought to enter your Thanksgiving this season. Allow yourself to see how great a sinner you are and then, as you contrast your darkness with light, realize how great your Saviour is.
Macy’s story is packed with some wonderful truths. First, that we never really know what’s going on in people’s lives, do we? We are pretty amazing at covering up our feelings and putting on a brave face for the world. Macy cried herself to sleep every night but didn’t want to share what she was going through with anyone – until she hit bottom.
Second, that we are not only meant to be part of a family but part of a Christian community. Sometimes our families let us down, hurt us, even work against our faith – but when we become a Christian one of the gifts we are given is the church, the Body of Christ, a group of like-minded, like-hearted people who care about us. Once she decided to share what was going on with people, she made a point to hang out with Christian friends, her youth group, her small group, and to come to church. Christians need each other and need to be meeting together regularly (Heb 10:24-25).
A third thing I noticed was that she found healing and solace as she served others. She called her time of serving others a “getaway that helps her see the world in a different way”. She was healed and renewed, disciple and comforted, as she served others.
That’s what I want to talk about today, the heart of a Christian servant. As I said, there is so much in her story that strikes a chord with what I want to talk about today. But if I may, before we jump into the Bible study, can I pull a fourth thing out of that illustration that isn’t so much a part of what she said, but in the background of her story?
Full credit to Macy for being humble enough to share her feelings with her friends, to attend her small group and youth group, and to volunteer in that ministry to parents of special needs children – but all of the places she described as bringing her comfort, required a lot of work and sacrifice from others that aren’t in the video.
There would be no small group to go to without a small group leader and coordinator. There would be no youth group without a youth pastor and volunteers. There would be no “Breakaway” ministry without organizers. There would be no building to have it in without administrators. No Bible to read or devotional guide without translators and printers. For Macy to get comfort, she needed a connection to the Body of Christ. For her to feel fulfilled in service, for her to grow in maturity and faith, she needed someone to do the work of putting all of those things together, right? That’s The Body of Christ at work. In this we see Jesus calling different Christians with different gifts and aptitudes to work together to serve each other and their community in His name.
Motive for Service 1: Our Love for God
Please open up to Romans 12. We’ll go through the whole chapter because in it we see the Biblical view of what’s going on here. But we’ll take it in parts. It begins.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It starts with the motives behind our acts of service. Remember I said that every time you read a “therefore” you have to ask what it is there for? Paul, the previous chapter, has just described the inscrutably amazing grace of God that He would save continuously rebellious sinners like us. His point is that it is absolutely crazy, totally mysterious, almost incomprehensible, that God would look on such hard-hearted people and then trade His Son for them. And he follows that with chapter 12. He says that in light of this amazing grace, the undeserved Love God has shown you, He deserves our worship. In light of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which shows the depth and perfection of His love for us, how complete His love for us is, we should love Him back by presenting our own bodies to Him as a living sacrifice.
God, in the old covenant, demanded the blood of animals as an act of worship, and Jesus was the final sacrifice and the fulfilment of that requirement. Now, Paul says, God doesn’t want more sacrificial burnt offerings, but instead, He wants you to show your faith in Him, your love for Him, your thanks to Him for what He has done, by living your whole life as a sacrifice to Him. One a big, one-time sacrifice, but a lifetime of spiritual worship.
That’s our first motive for serving others – showing love to God for what He’s done.
Motive for Service 2: The Example and Teachings of Jesus
The second motive we have we read about starting in verse 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.”
The second motive is the teachings and example of Jesus. This verse uses the word “think” three times. It’s about how we see ourselves, who we think we are. This goes right to the teaching of Jesus, and it’s perfectly captured in Mark 10:35-45. Let’s read that together:
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”
What’s going on here? If we were to break down this request it would be simply this: “Jesus, we want to be great. We want to be on top. Sure, you can be the tippity-top, but we want to be next, first in your kingdom.” What is Jesus’ response?
“Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’”
His response is to say, “Do you know the qualifications for greatness in the Kingdom of God? Do you know what kind of things you need to have on your resume in order to be even considered to be part of my kingdom let alone one of the greatest in it?” Of course, they respond,
“And they said to him, ‘We are able.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’”
What was the cup He had to drink, the baptism he had to be baptized in? It was the cup of ultimate service, of ultimate sacrifice. It was the cup of God’s wrath, of great suffering on the cross, and the baptism of being buried in a tomb. Keep reading in verse 41,
“And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.”
Not because James and John were wrong, but because they had thought of asking first! They were indignant because of their own ambition and jealousy. So Jesus stops everyone in their tracks. Look at verse 42,
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
What’s the lowest rank in a society? Below everyone else? Slave. But even among slaves there is a hierarchy. Some served more wealthy homes others had governing authority over other slaves. What is the lowest of the low? The slave who is “slave of all”. Jesus was the servant of all, going from the highest place to the lowest, the “slave of all”. That’s the attitude that the followers of Jesus are supposed to have.
How do people know that we are disciples of Jesus? By the fish decal on our car? By the big bible we carry? By the cross sign on our church? By the songs we sing? By how many things we decide not to go to? No. Jesus says in John 13:35,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
How do people know whether or not we love one another? How do you know that someone loves you? By their words? A little. But more by their deeds, right? What they do. How do people know that we are followers of Jesus? Because we love people the way He does.
Turn to Philippians 2:1–8 where it’s written this way,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
That’s the second motivation for serving others, the teachings and example of Jesus – because He told us to and modelled how. But there is a third motivation, but before we get there, take a look at the next verses and instead of motives for service we see the method.
The Body of Christ Working Together
Start in verse 4,
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 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.”
Here we see beyond the motives and into the methods of service. Here we recognize that God gives different gifts to different people according to His plan and His grace. Then He tells is people to use them, right? He saves us as individuals and then makes us part of a church. I’m concentrating today on the motives rather than the methods, but since it’s here, let’s notice that not everyone serves in the same way. Just as I said with Macy’s story, there are a lot of different people needed to make up the ministries of the church.
Look in verse 6. Here we see prophets, not describing people who see the future, but the preachers who speak the Word of God to the people, keeping them on track with what God wants. Next comes those who serve, which is similar to the word for Deacon, but simply means someone who spends time giving practical aid to the community of believers. Then we have the teachers who have the ability to explain the scriptures in a way that people can understand it and apply it to their lives. Then we have the exhorter, the cheerleaders in the church who keep encouraging, urging, imploring, spurring God’s people to keep going because they know God is doing something special. Then there are the “contributors”, which are simply the people who God has gifted with material and financial wealth who pay for things without grumbling about it. Then you have leaders who organize and plan the ministries so everyone is on the same page, and those who have the gift of mercy, which are essentially the Christian social workers, the good Samaritans who have a special heart for the sick, the prisoner, the hurting, the difficult cases.
Each of these believers, working together, make a healthy body of Christ. But this means two important things. First, that everyone has a job and second that not everyone is supposed to be doing the same thing.
Notice that everyone in the church has something to do. Maybe you’re not a leader or teacher. Maybe you’re an exhorter or a helper. You’re not good at planning things hospitals kind of freak you out, but you’re happy to show up and help get things done. Maybe you are a gifted leader, but you don’t know much about the bible and you don’t have any money. You need a teacher and a contributor. Maybe you’re a great teacher, but you get discouraged easily. You need an encourager. Maybe you don’t have much time to serve or help or lead, but God has given you the ability to make money. It’s ok that you’re a contributor.
But what happens if people get their wires crossed and start thinking that one gift is better, one position is more Christian? Trouble, right? People that are great at encouraging feel bad because they’re not teachers. Contributors feel guilty because they don’t help more. Helpers feel dumb because they aren’t good at administration and leadership. The teachers are annoyed by the helpers because they don’t know enough Bible trivia.
That’s not how it’s supposed to work, is it? Each person is only responsible for the things that God has planned out for them and for using the gifts that God has given them.
Motive for Service 3: Competition
Now, let’s get back to motivations by looking at verse 9
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
There’s a lot of good stuff in going on in here, but what I want to concentrate on today is in verse 10, “Outdo one another in showing honour.” This is an interesting turn of phrase and commentators argue a bit about. In one sense this means, “Each of you should honour each other more highly than yourself.” Or “Respect each other by showing deference to one another.” But there’s another side of this there, and that’s the competitive angle.
This whole section is about God’s Upside-Down Kingdom, where we bless our persecutors, seek out people who are weeping, spend time with the lowly, assume we need help, give our enemies gifts, and overcome evil with good. Remember what Jesus said to James and John? “Whoever would be first… must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:44)
He said this kind of thing many times. In Matthew 19 after meeting the Rich Young Ruler, His disciples were confused about who could get into heaven. Surely, if this rich, religious young man couldn’t, than nobody could. Jesus replied saying, “…many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matt 19:30) He then told the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, where a landowner gives the same payment to everyone working in his field, regardless of how many hours they had worked. He ends that story saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16)
In short, He was talking about His Upside-Down Kingdom where the wealthy, self-satisfied, celebrities are on the bottom, and the “poor in spirit”, “the meek”, “the reviled” and “persecuted”, (Matthew 5:2-11) and “the slaves of all” are on top.
Jesus never criticized James and John for wanting to be great, wanting to be like Him. But instead, explained His recipe for greatness. And what was that recipe? Servanthood.
I’m a competitive guy. I like playing games and I like winning them. That’s why I like verse 10 and 11 so much. It says “Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” It’s like Jesus says, “Ok, guys. If you’re going to try to compete against one another to see who is best, who is going to win the biggest prize, who is going to get the most points – then compete at who can serve and honour the most people, see who can help the most people, who can feed and clothe and teach the most people. I’m not about who can score the most goals, I’m about who can get the most assists. Ready, set, go!”
But there’s a catch, right? Every game needs rules. Remember Jesus teaching in Matthew 6? That’s the rules of the game. He says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (6:1) In this game, the more love you show to others, and the more secretive you can be about it, the more points you get – but you do it for others to see, or you do it for the wrong reasons, you lose points. Fun, right?
Our motives should be a mixture of all three of those, right? One of them is likely going to speak to you more, but whatever your motivation, whether you are motivated by your love for God and you want to thank Him for saving you… or you’re motivated to serve out of obedience to Jesus’ teachings… or you’re motivated by that competitive spirit that makes you want to be the best Christian servant you can possibly be… two things that we always need to remember is that it is God who saved us, God who enables us, God who motivates us, and therefore God who gets the glory – and that we cannot do any of this separate from the rest of the body of Christ. God always gets the glory and there are no Lone Ranger Christians.
Let me close with this: Today is the day that the church is has set aside to recognize some of the amazing people that help Beckwith Baptist Church. Not because we want them to lose points, but because we want to honour them, thank them, hold them up as examples for us to follow, and to honour them as people who have shown us the love of Jesus through their service.
These are people of all kinds, from all walks of life, with many different stories, different gifts and different struggles, but are all here together, in this church, serving for God’s glory. It is because of their service that we can be part of such a loving, excellent church and by honouring them, we honour the God who saved them and gave them to us as a gift.
Tonight we are going to be doing something a little special, something we haven’t done since I’ve been the pastor here, and that is to have an evening communion service. It’s interesting how this happened. Some people came to me and said that they felt like they wanted to “change up communion”.
If you know me you’ll know this immediately raised my hackles and made me wonder what was about to go down. I’m all for new worship music, trying things in church, experimenting with new ministries and seeing what happens, but I’m definitely going to have some issues with messing with the sacraments. They’re a big deal.
My first thought was an unfair one to them. I thought, “Oh great, these people want to make the Lord’s Supper cool by doing weird stuff with it.” And I’ve heard some weird things. I know of churches where those leading communion didn’t say anything, but just played a couple songs off YouTube hoping people would get the gist. I know of churches that refuse to serve gluten-free bread because it’s not as holy as bread made with wheat. I know of churches that make women wear doilies on their head or they won’t be served. I even lived next to one church that encouraged people to bring their pets to church so they could have communion too. I’ve heard all kinds of ways to fancy up Communion. Things like doing it at McDonald’s with hamburgers and coke or even serving it with French onion dip or whip cream.
Thankfully that’s not what they meant. The idea, they explained after I calmed down a bit, was that instead of having it as a short tack-on to the end of a worship service, to meet together at a special time so we can concentrate on what we are doing. Instead of little, tiny pieces of bread, serve an actual loaf and let people have something to chew on. Instead of teeny, Barbie-sized cups of juice, use dealcoholized wine in a bigger cup. The mission wasn’t about making it “cool”, but to make it more authentic, more prayerful, to take better care of how we do it, and to have a greater experience with it than is possible in the 10 minutes we spend at the end of a service.
That was something I could get behind and was more than happy to help plan. So that’s what we’re doing tonight. In my original plan, I intended on giving a short sermon explaining what communion was all about, but it occurred to me that speaking for too long might distract from what we are trying to do there, so I figured I’d give it a bit larger of a treatment this morning in preparation for tonight.
The Lord’s Supper and Signs of the Covenant
So with that in mind, please open up to Matthew 26:26-28, which tells us of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
This is the Thursday evening before Good Friday, mere hours before Jesus will go to Gethsemane, Judas will betray Him, Peter will deny Him, the disciples will abandon him, and Jesus will be arrested by the wicked Sanhedrin, falsely accused, brought to an illegal trial, and then sentenced to death. It says,
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Part of what you need to know about the Lord’s Supper is that Jesus didn’t invent it out of whole cloth. Jesus took an old ceremony and imbued it with new meaning. This was the festival of the Passover which had been instituted in the Law of Moses and celebrated for hundreds and hundreds of years so the Israelites would remember the miracle that occurred when they were slaves in Egypt; the plagues, the miracles, and especially the final miracle when God sent the angel of death to kill the first-born sons of Egypt, who could only be spared when a spotless lamb was killed and it’s blood spread on their doors.
Jesus took that powerful symbol, which all Jews knew intimately, and effectively said, “I’m the true Passover lamb. Sin and death hover over everyone, but I will be your spotless lamb who covers and protects you from the consequences of your sins. I will give up my body for yours and allow it to be broken for you. I will spill my blood so you can live.”
Jesus was creating a powerful object lesson. The broken bread and poured wine symbolized His death on the cross. But the cup had a double meaning. During the celebration of the Passover, four cups were traditionally drunk. This was probably the third of the four cups which would be passed around so all could drink out of the same cup. And before passing it, Jesus said, “…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (vs 28) That was very specific language and there’s a lot going on there.
Covenants are simply agreements between two parties, like a contract. And throughout the Bible, God often forms covenants with His people and then seals them with a sign. He established a covenant with Noah not to flood the earth and sealed it with the sign of the rainbow. He made a covenant with Abraham and the sign was circumcision. When God rescued his people from Egypt and gave them the Law, He made a covenant with them at Sinai. It said,
“Then he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” (Ex 24:7–8)
In the same way, Jesus took the Passover wine and amplified its meaning. As He was promising to be their Passover Lamb and save them from sins, He made a promise, a covenant with them and all who would believe, written in His spilled blood, symbolized and remembered every time we pour the wine, and then drink it, making it a part of us – and as we share the cup, share the wine, we become part of each other. The blood of Jesus, the covenant that saves us, is the banner we all come under during the Lord’s Supper. It’s a great levelling field and a powerful, important, and serious symbol – and that’s why we don’t mess with it.
Why can’t we use burgers and coke? Why can’t animals take it? Why do we give warnings before we do it? Why is it for believers? Why do we take it so seriously? Because it’s a very serious thing that Jesus told us to do, symbolizing the very essence of our faith.
When The Lord’s Supper Isn’t the Lord’s Supper
Now, please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-32. This is the passage I usually read when we have Communion, but I don’t read the entirety of it, usually due to time constraints, but I would like to today. This is another passage speaking to the serious nature of the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, and how important it is that we get it right. Now, when I say “get it right” I don’t necessarily mean “do the ritual properly”, which you will see as we read. If you recall, the Corinthian church was kind of a mess and had gotten a lot of things wrong, and the Apostle Paul was writing this letter to correct them. It says:
“But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.”
There are three things I want to point out in this passage to help guide what we are going to do this evening.
First, I want you to notice verse 20 which says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” What does that mean? This church was doing the same thing we have done each month for many years and will do again tonight. They were meeting together for worship and fellowship and then taking time to break bread and share the cup of the covenant together. So how could it not be the Lord’s Supper? The answer isn’t that they were doing the ritual wrong, but that their hearts weren’t right before God as they were eating and drinking. The offence was that instead of having the Lord’s Supper in the way Jesus intended, they were simply going through the religious motions (something many so called “Christian churches” are guilty of institutionalizing today, by the way.) What was the evidence that God didn’t accept their Lord’s Supper? Because of how they were treating one another. Sure, they had the elements before them, they were eating the bread and drinking from the cup, saying the words, and singing the songs – but the church was divided.
Paul says there were “factions” and “divisions” among them. They had separated themselves by class, race, economic status, gender, lifestyle, even by favourite apostle and beliefs. People were treating each other carelessly, with disrespect, forgetting each other’s needs, not caring for the poor and needy and oppressed among them, but instead were using those situations as a way to gain advantage over one another. They weren’t in “communion”, united under the banner of Jesus, and it showed in how they sinned against one another in so many ways. They weren’t caring for one another or forgiving one another, or doing most of the “one anothers” in the Bible. That meant they weren’t listening to the Holy Spirit, which meant they were still in unrepentant sin, which meant their hearts weren’t right with God, which meant they weren’t worthy or ready to take the Lord’s Supper, the very sign God gave us to demonstrate humility, sacrifice, forgiveness and unity.
I think that’s something our church needs to be very careful not to skip over. I know we are a friendly church, but I also know that there are a lot of hard feelings among the people here, offenses given and taken and not dealt with, old rivalries and unforgiveness, even bitterness here in our church. Don’t assume that this verse isn’t talking about us. Examine yourself. Why?
Because of how seriously God takes this offence? Look at verses 29–30,
“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
To “discern the body” has a two-fold meaning. First it means to understand what Jesus did for us on the cross, and second, that they are in right relationship with the Body of Christ, or other Christians. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is reserved for humble, believing, repentant, forgiven Christians. It is for people who understand what Jesus meant in Matthew 5:23–24 when He said,
“… if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
And in Matthew 6:15 where He said,
“…if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
God doesn’t want our worship until we’ve show sacrificial love to others, especially those who make it difficult.
How serious does He take this? Not only will He reject our worship, He actually brought sickness and death to the church to demonstrate His displeasure. Would God do that? Certainly. Consider what happened to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 when they lied about their tithing and God struck them dead. Consider God allowing the city of Jerusalem to be razed to the ground, sending His people into Babylonian captivity, far from their Promised Land for 70 years. Yes, God takes our faith, His church, and the sacraments very seriously and will sometimes allow His discipline to show in serious ways. We talked about that a little bit a few weeks ago.
Why is It God Not Blessing Us?
This all reminds me of Isaiah 58 where the nation of Israel wonders why so many things are going wrong with them. Turn there, but keep your thumb in 1 Corinthians. God says to the prophet in verse 1,
“Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.”
The next verse is dripping with sarcasm:
“Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God.”
Every day they come before God, perform religious rituals, read some bible, say some prayers, tell God how great they are and how much blessing they deserve, and wonder why everything around them is falling apart. In verse 3 the people say,
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?”
What’s going on here, God? We’re coming to church, singing the songs, studying your word, saying the prayers, doing the ministry stuff, going to meetings, eating the bread, drinking the wine, even fasting? Why are we not seeing victories, answers to prayer, miracles? And the answer comes from God,
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure…”
Stop there. That’s the problem. They’re not fasting or worshipping God. All they have in mind is their own pleasure. Back to verse 3:
“Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?”
God is saying, “Do you think I just want you to go through some religious motions and then treat everyone around you badly? Do you think you can come before me and ask for things when I know that you are utterly indifferent towards those who I’ve told you to take care of!”
People sometimes ask, “Why isn’t God answering my prayers?” One answer is found here, and is echoed in the New Testament book of James 4:2-3,
“You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
God was rejecting Israel’s worship, their religious activity, their prayers, and bringing harsh discipline to them because their hearts were not in the right place. How did that show? By the fact that they weren’t repenting from their sin, and were, in fact committing sins against one another, even against the weakest among them. That’s exactly what was happening in Corinth, and I fear, it may be happening here too.
The point is that what Paul is saying here, when he says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.”, is that though they were going through the motions of Communion, performing the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, their private lives and how they treated each other showed that their hearts were far from God, and a far cry from the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus was trying to teach them through this sacred meal.
A Reminder of The Cost
Flip back to 1 Corinthians. The second thing Paul tells them in verses 23-26 was to remind them of the cost of their salvation, found in the elements – the very body and blood of Jesus. The reason we celebrate communion is to remember the Life, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – to remember the cost of our sins and how terrible it was when we were enslaved by them. And then, to remember that our sins, no matter how terrible, are forgiven because of the goodness of God sending His own Son and the love of Jesus demonstrated on the cross. And then, to take that love and grace and share it with one another in His name, exemplified by eating and drinking His Body and Blood together!
Communion is a powerful time, but it becomes meaningless, even dangerous, when we do it with our hearts in the wrong place.
That’s why the third thing I want to point out is what we are supposed to be doing before the Lord’s Supper – and that is to examine ourselves; to do an inventory of our head, heart, and soul, to examine our actions, thoughts, and motives. Look again at verses 27-29,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
We are commanded to invite God to open us up the way Psalm 139:23-24 says,
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”
To open the Word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to do soul surgery on us. As it says in Hebrews 4:12–13,
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
That is actually what we are going to spend the majority of our evening doing tonight. In order to obey Jesus in this way, we will be reading scriptures, privately confessing our sins to God, publically confessing our sins to each other, accepting forgiveness, and then having the Lord’s Supper together. My invitation to you is to take time to prepare for it today. To read scripture, get right with God, prepare yourself to confess to your brothers and sisters, and to accept Jesus again as your only hope of salvation, the only one who can cleanse you from sin.