I’ve been doing something lately that I rarely do. I can’t actually remember when I’ve done this before. I’ve been reading books for myself. I know that sounds weird to say, but usually when I read, study, or watch something, it’s so that I can learn for the sake of my job. But lately, because of all the struggles I’ve been going through, my reading hasn’t been learning about other things, but about learning about myself. That’s lead me to a bunch of books, some given by my counsellor, others by my own research, that don’t just talk about a subject, but speak directly to me, and they have really been helping me to heal.
One of the books that I read was called “12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry” and I absolutely ate it up. It was a series of 12 mini-biographies about a bunch of historical pastors who went through hard times and how they faced them.
I read about men like John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who was arrested for preaching the gospel and spent almost thirteen years in prison. While he was in that prison cell he was not only writing one of the greatest books of all time, but also suffering incomprehensible spiritual attacks. He was deeply sad, angry, lonely, and afraid. But when he was told he could go free if he would stop preaching, he said, “If I were out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.”
I read about Charles Simeon who, as a young man, was appointed to be pastor of a church that didn’t want him. The congregation responded by refusing to come and locking the doors of their pews so no one could sit down. Anyone who came had to sit in aisle seats that Simeon paid for himself. In response to his, the church wardens threw the seats out into the street and then stood outside heckling, threatening the people coming in. Then, when Simeon was leaving they threw rocks or eggs at him, or waited to beat him up. He stayed at that church for twelve years.
I read stories of pastors facing disappointment, heartache, racism, tragedy, depression, financial ruin, and political coercion – and when the question was inevitably asked, “How did they respond? How could they face all this and remain faithful? Why didn’t they quit?” the answer always came “They held onto the Word of God and Prayer.” And every book I’ve read so far has had that same resounding anthem.
The Perils of Youth
We’re going to take a little break from the Heidelberg this week, so please open up to Psalm 119:9–16 and let’s read it together:
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Psalm 119 is written as an acrostic love song to the Word of God, each section giving another reason why the Bible contains the very words of life and the neglect of it brings death. In this section, the concentration is on how a believer can live a holy life.
It begins with the question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?” The author has in mind to give wisdom to help people avoid the pitfalls and perils that come with youth, but I would argue that this section of the psalm isn’t merely for the young.
Consider what it’s like to be a young person, aged 15-25. What are the defining characteristics? There are good things and bad, right? Most youth are strong, virile, passionate, excitable, energetic, and want to try new things. Their bodies heal quickly from injury and are more flexible, growing stronger every day. They feel emotions with great intensity – when they are sad their world is destroyed, but when they are happy they are elated. When they find interest in something, it captivates their attention and they can spend hours and hours on it.
But there are also some bad things with youth, right? They are ignorant and are easily manipulated and fooled into believing lies. Their desire to try new things can lead them into dangerous, addictive, and destructive habits. Their youthful bodies make them think they are indestructible so they take greater risks, but their underdeveloped brain and lack of experience cause them to face unnecessary danger. Their passions, while a wonderful gift, can run wildly out of control, driving them to think and believe extreme things that simply aren’t true. “Everyone hates me! I’m the ugliest person ever! My parents are the worst people in the world!! Everyone is doing the same stupid, scary, dangerous thing – but I have to do it because acceptance from my peers is the only thing that matters, and I’ll literally die if I don’t get their approval!” (Not that they say it exactly like that…)
But, those thoughts aren’t only the purview of youth, are they? Be honest. Those of us who are older still struggle with those thoughts, don’t we? They may be more refined, with the sharp edges sanded off by the years, but they are the same thoughts.
We struggle with loneliness and acceptance. We want to live out our purpose and change the world, struggling to wonder if we are in the right job, the right marriage, the right city – and wondering if we should bug out and start over. We do stupid, selfish things with our money in an attempt to make ourselves feel better or to impress others. We experiment with ways to fix our feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety just as much. Sure, we do it in more refined ways – with wine, medication, vacations, a false social media identity, bossing people around, quitting our jobs – but we also do it with food, pornography, and drugs. We get fooled by advertisers and become extreme in our devotion to things like sport teams, name brands, diets, and personal comfort or experiences. And each of those immature things corrupts our relationship with God and causes impurity to enter into our souls.
So, when we read, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”, let’s not assume that it’s not about us. Let’s restate it this way: “How can someone who struggles with immature thinking keep from corrupting their life?”
And the answer is: “By guarding it according to your word.” Conversely, how can a person make sure they corrupt their life? By neglecting, or forgetting, God’s word.
I wanted to take a quick break from the Heidelberg before I went on vacation because there has been a resounding theme to a lot of the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and that is the neglect of God’s Word and prayer. And I’m not talking about the normal, Christian humility where we all say, “Yeah, I could be praying more.”, but a true neglect of personal quiet times, reading God’s word and prayer.
My guess is that this is happening because of the many struggles that we are facing as a church. Over the past couple years the families in our church have been through physical and mental health issues, faced sickness and death, have struggled with hurting marriages, strained family relationships, and broken friendships. We’ve seen addiction issues, depression, and anxiety. We’ve seen financial problems and job loss. And of course, most of you know about the struggles we’re having as a church. My family has been going through a tough time, but the church as a whole is struggling too.
All of these struggles are a sort of crucible that we are going through together and as individuals. A crucible is a pot used by metal workers in order to melt their metal in a furnace. They are designed to withstand incredible heat when put into a fire so that the metal can get to the melting point. When the metals are melted in the crucible, a bunch of gunk and impurities separate from the metal and floats to the top (called dross), and it’s scraped off and discarded leaving the metal more pure. Leaving the dross in causes the metal to be weak.
How does God refine the impurities out of his people?
Proverbs 17:3 says, “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tests hearts.”
God purifies his people by giving them situations by which their faith and obedience and discipline and love are tested.
Isaiah 48:10–11 says, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”
God sends affliction, or trials, or troubles to His people on purpose so that by them we can see our impurities, the dross that is gunking up and weakening our metal. So we can understand the ways that we are profaning the name of God and giving glory to or trusting other people and things than Jesus.
To Jeremiah, who lived around the time of the exile, when the whole nation had become hypocrites, God said that one of his mission was:
“I have made you a tester of metals among my people, that you may know and test their ways. They are all stubbornly rebellious, going about with slanders; they are bronze and iron; all of them act corruptly. The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the LORD has rejected them.” (Jeremiah 6:27–30)
God sent waves of affliction and trouble to them, gathering them in the crucible of Jerusalem, and placing them in the furnace of affliction, but they were like a bad alloy, or a metal that was entirely dross – just a bunch of bubbling junk. At no point did their trials cause them to repent, to relent from their sin, to turn back to God.
We here are going through trials in this church for a purpose. You are personally going through tough times, but they are not without cause – they are designed by God to show you something about yourself, something about God, something about your faith.
And for many people here, one of the things that has bubbled up as dross is a lack of commitment to taking time to read God’s Word and pray – which shows that we are going to other places for comfort and hope. The furnace continues, the heat of affliction grows hotter, and – I know because I’ve talked to many of your – you feel the conviction to repent, to turn to God, to read and study his word, and to pray, but you don’t. And that refusal has caused a lot of impurities to settle in your heart.
- Fears and doubts cloud your thinking.
- Lack of sleep, the need for more and more medications to stop your racing thoughts.
- Constant anxiety or depressive thoughts.
- Obsessing over work or lack of desire to do anything.
- Out of control anger and arguing more and more with the people you love.
- You don’t feel close to God, close to the church, close to your friends. You actually avoid Christian events, people and music.
- Your worship life is gone, and you feel spiritually dry.
- You drink more, eat more, sleep more, hide more, or get busier and busier to avoid thinking.
- Maybe you’ve even gotten to the place where you consider quitting your job, moving away, quitting the church, divorcing your spouse, or even committing suicide,
Why? Because the furnace has shown your dross, the impurities that are weakening your spirit, but you haven’t repented.
Road to Emmaus
Turn with me to Luke 24:13-35 (but keep your thumb in Psalm 119). This is the story of the two disciples who meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus. This story occurs after Jesus has been crucified and rose from the dead, even after Peter and John and Joanna and the Marys saw the empty tomb. And it begins:
“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still, looking sad.”
Pause there. Jesus interrupts their conversation and asks them what they are talking about – and they can’t even speak. They just stop, stand still, and look sad. Have you ever had that moment where you are doing kinda okay, and then someone asks you just the wrong question and you stop, get that catch in your throat, the sting in the eyes, and you just can’t talk? These men loved Jesus, and the subject makes them deeply sad. Keep reading:
“Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’”
Ever had that experience where someone asks you how you’re doing and you just decide to tell them? “Fine, you really want to know?!” and you just verbal diarrhea everything that’s been going wrong?
“And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.’”
Blaarghh… right? “Well, stranger, we’ve got a lot going on right now. We don’t know what happened, why it happened, and we have no idea where it’s leading. We thought God was doing one thing and then it turned out we were wrong. The plans that we thought were set, all the hopes we had, exploded in our faces. Then a bunch of things happened we didn’t expect and people started saying things we don’t really understand.” I’m sure we’ve all been there.
So, what does Jesus do? Look at verse 25:
“And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!’”
Let me translate that to modern speak: “You dummies, don’t you read the Bible?” Then Jesus says in verse 26:
“Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’”
“You know if you read your Bible more you wouldn’t have been so surprised by any of this. If you had been in the word, listening to Jesus, listening to God, then this would make a lot more sense to you. There is zero reason for you to be hopeless and sad right now.”
And how does Jesus follow that up? How does Jesus bring these sad men comfort? Look at verse 27,
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
He did a Bible study. Why? Because the answer to: Why did this happen? What was the purpose? What is Jesus doing? Is God still in control? Where is this all going? – is all answered in the Bible! The Bible and prayer are the means by which God communicates to His people. Jesus didn’t come up with a bunch of new theories and psychological mumbo-jumbo or memorized pat answers – He went to the source of truth: God’s Word, and explained it carefully, from beginning to end.
This is my point today: Many of you are starving your souls of the Word of God and that is why you feel such fear and sadness. You don’t have answers to what is going on, and don’t have wisdom to deal with it, because you aren’t turning to the source of wisdom. The Bible is how God speaks to His people – corporately and personally, in church and in your private times. You don’t need a pastor or priest or expert to read the scriptures to you and interpret what they say. If you are a Christian, then you have the Holy Spirit of God, the presence of Jesus Himself, with you if you ask Him to be there when you are reading.
You don’t need another book, a special formula, a prayer guide, or a podcast – as helpful as those things are. You need to find a quiet place, open your Bible, read it, meditate on it, pray about what you read, and ask God to help you apply it to your life.
Look back to Psalm 119: it says,
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
What keeps us from sin and helps us flee temptation? Memorizing scripture.
“Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes!”
“Statutes” means “prescriptions or “boundaries” or “limits”. How can you learn the boundaries that your life is meant to run in so you don’t smash into the wall? Ask God to teach you through His Word.
“With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth.”
The word “rules” there is the word for “judgements” or “the deciding of a case”. How can you understand the ways that God sees the world, how justice works in the world, how things can look out of control but are actually following God’s rules? Through the study and reading of the word of God.
Look at the next part:
“In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.”
Look at the words “delight”, “meditate”, “fix my eyes”. The NIV translates that last sentence as, “I will not neglect your word.” (NIV)
How do you find joy in sadness, hope when afraid? How do you find reservoirs of love when you seem to be all tapped out? By finding your delight in the Word of God? How do you do that? By taking time to slow down… meditate… fix your eyes… mull over… chew on… reflect on… write about… think about… talk about… pray about… the Word of God.
“But I don’t have time!” we all cry! And I say this: You must make the time. This isn’t about learning a bit more about theology so you can answer some trivia questions – this is about the sustenance of your soul. This is as important as eating and breathing, and neglecting it is what is making you soul sick and too weak to deal with the crucible God has you in.
The only way to understand the refinement God is working in you, the only way to pass through the crucible, is to get rid of the dross, to become strengthened by praying and meditating on the Word of God often and for long periods of time. There is no substitute.
Turn back to Luke 24 and look at the effect that being with Jesus and studying His word had on those two men:
“So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’ And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
First, it made them want more, so they begged Jesus to be with them.
Second, being with Jesus opened their eyes to the truth! If they would have let Him go down the road, and not begged for more time with him, they would have missed Him and still been in the dark.
Third, their hearts burned within them, meaning they were delighted, excited, impassioned, convicted, encouraged… all by the study of the word of God. That’s what private Bible reading and prayer can do. Being with Jesus makes our hearts burn within us.
And fourth, it caused their faith to grow so much that they leapt into action to spread the good news to others. They were headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus, but after talking to Jesus, “that same hour”, they ran back to Jerusalem so they could tell the other disciples what had happened.
And fifth, their story caused everyone’s faith to grow. The disciples told Simon’s story, the two men told their story, and everyone gave glory to God for the amazing things that they had experienced. From sadness and fear and confusion to joy, hope, and faith – all through the presence of Jesus and the study of His Word.
I encourage you to commit to changing your habits, cutting things out – be ruthless if you have to – and make time to be in prayer and in God’s Word. Take time to repent, to study, to pray, to seek God’s wisdom, to seek Him out about your crucible, to ask Him what dross He is getting rid of, to be thankful for His love, and to be unafraid to ask Him for what you need.
Please open up to Romans 10:9-17 and let’s read it together, and then I have a short video to show you:
“…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Quite a video, wasn’t it? This part of our study of the Heidelberg Catechism triggers me like crazy because it touches a passion of mine – that being the importance of knowing what you believe, why you believe that, and whether or not it’s true.
I know this sounds uncharitable and elitist or whatever, but that video drives me nuts. It’s a bunch of people who claim to be Christians, who say they attend church regularly but have no idea what they’re talking about. The interviewer didn’t ask any complex, theologically tricky questions either. Just simple ones: Will you go to heaven when you die? Can you trust the Bible? Is the church important? Are people basically good?
And they got them all wrong – as most people would in Canada and the US. It scares me, actually keeps me up at night, thinking that there are people here, that sit under my teaching, and would give similar answers to these people. It terrifies me to think that someone could sit in this church for a couple years and walk out each week thinking they are a Christian, but not actually have any confidence about what would happen to them when they die – and thereby has no hope when trials come, nor can give hope to others who they meet along the way.
That’s why I’ve written books, keep up a blog, have Overtime, teach classes, and make myself available during the week – so that everyone here can be, hopefully, crystal clear in what they believe, why they believe it, and whether or not it’s true.
And I’m not saying I get it right all the time. I wish I was more winsome and interesting and accurate so that you would hear what I’m saying with more clarity and comprehension. I know there are days that I don’t explain things properly or the sermon gets dry. I watch as the teens chat among themselves or draw or pass notes. I see the adults yawn and doze and stare blankly at me regardless of what I say. I see the same four people come to Overtime. I know the church is shrinking, the tithing is less, the ministries are drying up, and that I take some blame for that. And because of that, I feel more and more pressure to be more entertaining, more interesting, and constant wonder what I’m doing wrong that keeps people from being excited by Jesus and the Word of God.
This isn’t a chastisement, I promise. I’m not criticising you. If anything, I’m criticizing myself. As I said, it scares me to think that I could be pastor of a church for more than half a decade and that the people under my teaching would be in the same place – in knowledge, discipline, commitment, curiosity, service, financially, in repentance – as they were when I got here.
You want to know my greatest nightmare? What scares me the most? That if I were to die today and stand before God that He would say: “I know you tried, Al, but you failed your church. Instead of inspiring them towards love and good works, instead of discipling them to become greater followers of my Son, you bored them to death, lulled them to sleep, made Me look bad, and made the study of the scriptures feel mind-numbingly dreary. Your church grew no closer to me in your years than when you arrived. They don’t pray more, read more, know more, serve more, or repent more than they ever have. Your ministry was a waste of time.”
Now, I don’t think that’s true, but it scares me that I might be doing damage to the gospel. And it’s led me, many times, usually on Sunday evenings and Monday afternoons, to the brink of resigning and quitting the pastorate altogether. And I don’t say this so you’ll console me or pat me on the back. I feel your encouragement all the time. I simply say this because I want you to know that I am absolutely committed to helping you know what you ought to believe, why you ought to believe it, and whether or not it’s true. You keep me up at night! Because I believe that what we’re learning here at church are the most important things in the world. And if there is any way I can help you learn – any criticism you can give me or way I can improve so you can know God better – please let me know.
Faith that Leads to Salvation
Now, to our study: You can tell from the first word of our passage in Romans 10 that we’re jumping into the middle of an argument here. It starts with the word “because”, and there’s a whole lot going on behind that “because”, but we covered a lot of it over the past weeks, so I don’t want to get sidetracked by restating it all.
Hopefully you’ve been following along, but briefly, if you recall, as we’ve been going through the Heidelberg Catechism, we’ve been talking about man’s biggest problem (that being sin and death) and how Jesus the Mediator is the only possible hope for the salvation of humanity. [I just summarized four and a half hours of sermons.]
Last week we got into Day 7 of the study of the catechism which, in question 20, asks the question:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
, or in other words, “Ok, how does salvation work, then?” The answer was,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
And the next question, number 21, which we covered at the end of last week was
“What is true faith?”
If the only people who are saved are the ones who have “true faith”, then what is that? And the answer given was,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
[Just a side note to remind you of all the scriptural footnotes there that I’m not getting into but am hoping you are looking up on your own.]
So, what is “true faith”? Let me pluck out a few words there. “True faith” is “sure knowledge” and “firm confidence” in the Word of God and the Work of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews 11:1 says,
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Now, I ask you, the people in that video, did they have “sure knowledge”, “firm confidence”, “assurance”, and “conviction” in the promises of God? Not at all, right? They were like, “Gee, I hope so, maybe.”
So, follow my argument here. If the Bible says in Ephesians 2:8 that we are saved “by grace, through faith”, and in Romans 5:1 that we are “justified by faith” (Rom 5:1) in Jesus – and the definition of “faith” means having “assurance” and “conviction” in God’s promises as stated in the Bible, then are those people saved?
I can’t say I know the state of their hearts, because no man can, but Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15–16,
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.”
Based on what they have said, I can say with fair confidence that they are probably not saved. Why? Because they don’t have confidence in the gospel.
That means, that even though they call themselves Christians, that they go to church two or three times a month – that their souls are destined for Hell. These are regular people. These are your friends who you think are Christians, who talk about God and prayer, who maybe come to your small group or sit next to you in church, who take communion with you, but who do not have a saving faith in Jesus because they do not believe the Word of God.
Does that make you sad and scared? Does it frighten you that people you know and love, your friends, family, children, parents, may look like sheep but are actually, what Jesus calls in Matthew 23:27-29, “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean…. on the outside [appearing] to people as righteous but on the inside… full of hypocrisy….” That scares me. I hope it scares you.
That’s why we need to get this right. That’s why we need to know what we’re talking about. That’s why we need to know what we believe, why we believe it, and why it’s true.
What, Then Must a Christian Believe?
And so, it follows in the Heidelberg, that if a Christian must have true faith, then we must ask question 22:
“What, then, must a Christian believe?”
Right? What is a Christian supposed to have faith in? Some would answer “Jesus” or “The Bible”, right? And they’re not wrong, but those are sort of general, right? What are we to believe about Jesus? And of course there are a lot of parts of the Bible that people have differences of opinion on, so which parts are the most critical?
For example, the New Testament, in five different letters, commands us to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Peter 5:14; 1 Thess 5:26; 2 Cor 13:12). Is that as important as the commandment in Matthew 6:15 that “if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”? Or, if someone were to come to you and ask you the question, “You’re a Christian, right? What do Christians believe?” it would be important to have a good answer, right? You can’t just say “I believe in Jesus”, because that’s really not specific enough. Atheists believe Jesus existed. ISIS members believe Jesus was a prophet. Even demons believe Jesus is God. And you can’t just sit them down and say, “Ok, let me read the entire Bible to you, starting in Genesis 1:1”. You need a summary, right?
So it’s important that we ask the question, “What, then, must a Christian believe?” and have a good summary of it. 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.”
So, Christians believe the “gospel”. Where do we find the gospel? In the “articles”. What does that mean? It just means “the parts of anything written down”. Then it says “of our catholic, undoubted, Christian faith…”. The word “catholic” doesn’t mean “Roman Catholic”, but simply means “universal”, held by and binding together all believers.
And what are those articulated, written down, summarized beliefs that all believers hold and have always held? That’s question 23. And the answer given is something very special. It’s something we call “The Apostles’ Creed” and it reads like this:
“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; I believe a holy catholic Christian church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.”
The Apostles’ Creed
There have been a lot of creeds written over the centuries, and a lot of churches have many different creeds. In essence, as I said, a creed is merely a summary of what Christians believe. And a lot of churches, the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, and even older Baptist churches have recited The Apostles’ Creed for a very long time – almost 2000 years. The Apostles’ Creed has been the standard for a long time.
Sure, there are some churches and Christians that say things like “no creed but Christ” or “no creed but the Bible”, but they are misguided. All Christians are confessional. We all have summaries of our beliefs which we can state quickly. To say “no creed but Christ” makes no sense. What they usually mean is that they are rejecting any human attempt to claim that Christians must believe things that God doesn’t explicitly say in His Word. And for sure, that’s important. We are told not to add or subtract from the Bible (Rev 22:18-19). But a well-written creed isn’t mean to add or subtract anything, but simply to summarize. That’s why the counsels and theologians who craft them spend so much time arguing about the exact wording!
What makes the Apostles’ Creed so special? First, I have to say that the Apostles’ Creed wasn’t written by the Apostles’. It’s called that because it encapsulated what the Apostles’ believed. It was a type of “baptismal creed”, or a “catechism for new believers”. At their baptism they would be asked, “What do you believe?” or what is your “Rule of faith?” and they would rattle off a little creedal summary of the faith they held. It was essentially, a way to make sure that the person being baptized was a real Christian and gave them a chance to declare their faith publically.
When we do a baptism in our church today I ask you to give your public testimony but before we ever get that far – and you’ll know this if I baptized you – I sit down with you and ask you questions about what you believe. We talk about sin, Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection. Why? Because I want to make sure you are a believing Christian before I baptize you. Pastors have been doing that for a very long time. We want to make sure you know that baptism isn’t some magic ceremony that makes you a Christian, that reciting the creed isn’t some kind of magic incantation that makes God accept you. We want to make sure that your faith is a true faith.
They were doing this sort of testing right from the beginning of Christianity, even in the 1st and second century. You’ve probably heard of the Nicene Creed, right? In the third century, when a bunch of heretics and confusion started to enter the church – especially concerning whether Jesus was truly God and man at the same time – Emperor Constantine, in 325AD decided to get all the best and brightest theologians and pastors together to hash out the problem and write a short, clear summary of the most basic beliefs that Christians must have about Jesus as they appear in scripture. That became the Nicene Creed. But that creed wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It was an adaptation, or rather a clarification, of a creed that had existed for a long time – called the Caesarean Rule of Faith. Most churches had their own creed around this time, but they were all pretty similar. In this case, the creed from Caesarea was used.
The Apostles’ Creed, though it’s difficult to date, even predates that. That’s one of the reasons it’s so special. It is considered to be the oldest, official church creed and takes it origins from around 140 AD, only a few decades after the last Apostles’ died.
One church historian says,
“… as the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue [10 Commandments] is the Law of laws, so the Apostles’’ Creed is the Creed of Creeds.”
But it’s not just its age that makes it special. It doesn’t really matter how old it is, how wonderful the words of a Creed are, how pithy it is written, or how many people agree with it. All that really matters is how much it agrees with scripture. And the Apostles’ Creed is special because it is a biblical document. The authors of the creed didn’t want to make anything up, so almost every word of it is a copy/paste from the Bible. That’s why so many theologians, from the early church fathers to John Calvin to modern times, have studied it and used it as a teaching tool for so long.
We are currently on what is called Lord’s Day 7 of the catechism, in question 23, and we are going to stay parked in the Apostles’ Creed until Day 22 and question 58! We are going to spend a long time in this document. The Heidelberg takes apart almost every single word of it, defends it from scripture, and then explains it’s importance to believers. Why? If you remember my summary of the history of the Heidelberg, it was because people’s theology and faith was all over the map – their knowledge was confused, their hope was lost, their unity in the Spirit under attack, the adults and preachers ignorant, the youth falling away from God – and they knew that what these people needed most was a solid framework to build their faith on so they could rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ and find their hope in Him.
The passage we started with in Romans 10 ended, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” How do we build up faith? How do we make sure the people we know and love are saved? How do we build up our own hope during troubled and confusing times? By hearing the truth about the Word of Christ in the Gospel, in the Bible.
That passage says, “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” Which is great news, but then it says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”
People can’t be saved if they don’t believe. And they can’t believe if they don’t hear. And they can’t hear us if we are too afraid to talk because we don’t have confidence in our own faith, right? This is why I implore you to pray, read the word, study, and meet together. Because you are surrounded by people who need to know the hope that is within you – and they’re not going to come talk to me. They’re not going to come to church. And some of them believe lies. You have very words of life within you. I want you to have the confidence to share them – not because you feel guilty, but because you know they are true.
 Know the Creeds and Counsels by Justin S Holcomb pg 26.
So, that little video is a reminder of what we’ve been studying over the past while, especially last week where we looked at Jesus teaching in Matthew 6 about how we ought to be setting our priorities when it comes to stewarding our treasures (meaning our finances and possessions). The biggest thought there was that our relationship with our money and stuff is directly connected to our relationship with God.
Last week we studied Matthew 6:19-24 where Jesus teaches us about the folly and spiritual danger of storing our treasures on earth, about the darkness that creates in our souls, and how believers simply cannot ride the fence in this matter. He says in verse 24, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
This week I want to continue that study by moving on to verse 25 and look the conclusion of what Jesus was teaching in that sermon. Let’s open there and read:
What’s the Therefore There For?
Ok, so pause there a second. Whenever we see a “therefore” in the Bible, we always have to ask ourselves what it’s there for. Usually, it’s a way to tie the previous teaching to the next, and often, that next teaching is an application. The author will make a theological truth claim and then what we’re supposed to do with that truth.
In 2 Genesis we read about the truth about the creation of man and women. That section concludes with the application, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) The relationship between man and woman, under God, makes its application in marriage.
In Exodus 4, God calls Moses to the burning bush to tell him that he’s going to be His messenger to Pharaoh. Moses comes up with a bunch of excuses about how he can’t talk good, which God refutes with a bunch of theological truths, and then says, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exo 4:12)
And of course, the New Testament is full of them, especially Romans. It’s a deeply theological book, teaching a lot about how God works, but it almost always ends in an application.
Romans 1:22–23 concludes a long theological statement about how sin leads to idolatry and darkness of heart: “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.” We then read what happens when that darkness of heart is applied: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves…” Idolatry of heart leads to the impurity of mind and body.
But in Romans 4:24-25 we read the theological truth claim that Jesus work on the cross did everything necessary to appease God’s wrath against sin, “It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Which leads to the practical application of the next verse, 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If what this says about what Jesus did is true, then the application of our faith to it means that we are no longer under God’s wrath, but are at peace.
That’s why we stop for a moment whenever we read a “Therefore” in the bible. It’s usually a key point that’s about to be made.
So here in our passage today we read the theological truth claim comes before: Worrying about your earthly treasures will fill you with darkness and cause you to hate God. Concern about your treasures in heaven will fill you with light and cause you to love God.
So what’s the practical application of that thought? Let’s read the whole thing together:
“Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
So, what’s the “therefore” there for? What’s the practical application? “Don’t be so worried about your treasures – or don’t be anxious about your needs.”
From the world’s perspective, and unfortunately, many Christians share this perspective, living without worrying about money is insanity. I think especially of the kids that are graduating high school soon, or within the next few years. Within the culture, there is this automatic reflex to ask these kids what they are going to be and to lay upon them all the anxieties of the world.
If we ask a child what they want to be when they grow up we used to give them latitude to give any answer they like: fireman, veterinarian, astronaut, doctor, scientist, race car driver, bus driver, an artist, a dinosaur…. but at some point, not too long in their future, many adults around them start to feel like it’s their responsibility to tell them the economic reality of that decision.
“Sorry, Johnny, I know the big yellow bus is cool, but being a bus driver doesn’t pay enough. And being a race car driver isn’t realistic, the lessons cost a lot of money, so do entry fees and travel and the car is worth millions, so you shouldn’t do that either. Being an artist doesn’t pay at all, so maybe do that as a hobby once you get a real job. And sure, you could be a doctor or an astronaut, but that means going to school for a really long time, and school costs money… and that’s why, Johnny, you can’t have a new bike.”
But the pressure gets worse in High School. As they reach graduation age all these 17-18-year-olds are not only supposed to know what they are going to do for the rest of their lives but also commit to training in a career for 3-4 years at the expense of tens of thousands of dollars – usually loaned to them. And heaven-forbid they say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”… or worse, get two years in and realize that they don’t want to do that anymore, because then their 19 or 20 years old, have no job because they’ve been going to school, and are 20 thousand dollars in the hole.
So, starting when their 15 or 16, the guilt trip starts, right? How does every conversation go? “Mom and Dad, can I go to the movies tonight?” “No, you need to get your rest because you need to do better in school, because you need to get better grades, so you can get into a good university, so you can get a good career, so you can make lots of money, so you and I never have to worry about your financial future.”
“Mom and Dad, I’m really tired and stressed out. Can I spend time with my friends?” “Sorry, honey, that’s how life is. You don’t see me hanging out with friends, do you? You’re on 2 sports teams and in three clubs and doing after-school programs and volunteering because – you need a good transcript, so you need to get into a good university so you can get a good career so you can make lots of money….”
“Mom and Dad, I’m freaking out. I got so stressed out that I developed an eating disorder, got addicted to drugs, and started hanging out with some stoners that just let me exist rather than stressing me out and guilt tripping me all the time.” “Oh, no! Now your grades are bad, and your transcript is bad, and you’ll never get into a university, and you won’t get a good career, so you can’t make lots of money…. You have to clean up your life!
“Why, Mom and Dad? What does a cleaned up life look like?”
“Well, honey, it looks… anxious, stressed out, money and career driven. It looks like being a good consumer, making lots of cash so can buy lots of things and run away from your job for 2 weeks per year to go somewhere warm. It looks like a failing marriage, distant children, shallow friendships, and an empty spirit. It means not being able to sleep because you’re worried about the bills. It means ruining your reputation so you can get ahead.
It means yelling at your family and making them the enemy whenever things get tight. Who threw away the bread crust?! Why do you use so much toothpaste?! Why are all these lights on?! You’re not allowed to be sick today, I have to go to work! Don’t you know how expensive these things are?
It means putting off enjoying everything until some magic day in the future. Don’t enjoy your teen years because you need to worry about your future. Don’t enjoy your 20s because you need to be worried about your grades and career. Don’t enjoy your 30s because you need to worry about your job and accumulating enough stuff to impress your friends and hopefully a mate. Don’t enjoy your 40s because you need to worry about paying your bills and feed your family. Don’t enjoy your 50s because you need to worry about retirement. Don’t enjoy your 60s because now money is tight because you didn’t save enough or you added mortgages and a bunch of debt in your 40s and 50s so you need to find a job as a Walmart greeter or fast-food cashier. Then you can, maybe, spend your evenings watching tv. That’s the life I want for you, kid. Doesn’t that sound great?”
That’s insane, isn’t it? Why do we do that to our young people? Why do we do that to ourselves? But that’s what life looks like when our treasure is on earth and our greatest anxieties are about money. Instead of raising children of good character, and instead of pursuing good character ourselves, what do we pursue – career, money. Career wins over character in so many of our homes. I overhear it in so many conversations.
How many of you can say this: “I don’t care what my child or my grandchild does. I don’t care if they pump gas, pick garbage, dig ditches, or flip burgers – just so long as they are people of godly character who love God and love others.”
Now make it about you. Can you honestly say this about yourself: “I don’t care what I do for work. I don’t care if I stock shelves, sell used cars, or mix paint at home hardware – just so long as I’m developing godly character and have the opportunity to worship God and love others.”
Can you say that? Most can’t. Why? Because they are anxious about their life, what they will eat, what they will drink, about their bodies, and what they will wear (Mt 6:25).
Relieving The Anxiety
So how do we get out of that trap? How do escape the culture and relieve the anxiety of having to worry so much about money, career, future – and stop putting so much pressure on ourselves and others? Why shouldn’t we be anxious?
Because Jesus says not to be. Because we believe Jesus’ “therefore”. We believe what Jesus says. We trust that Jesus is telling us the truth here.
Let’s follow the argument that Jesus gives here, starting at verse 25. What is Jesus’ first premise? Your life is about more than food and clothing. What’s Jesus second premise? Look at verse 26. God knows your needs and will provide them.
Then, after giving evidence for this truth claim using nature as His example – God feeds the birds and you’re worth more to Him than a bird. God clothes the lilies, and you’re worth more to Him than a flower. – Jesus ties the two premises together by restating the theological truth claim as a conclusion in verses 31-32. If all this is true about God, then “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
And then we read the practical application of what this looks like when the rubber hits the road in verse 33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
The “But” there is mean to contrast what the gentiles (or unbelievers, people who don’t know God) do. Instead of being anxious like an unbeliever, act like a believer. What does acting like a believer look like? Seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
So, let’s put that all together with some simpler terms. Premise 1: Life is about more than money. We demonstrate that by where we put our faith – God or money. Premise 2: God knows what you need. We demonstrate that by allowing God to provide rather than being anxious. Therefore, if we believe that, then we must say that God’s priorities are more important than ours. Therefore, if we follow God and pursue righteous living (seeking God’s kingdom), then God will provide for us. Therefore, the righteous don’t need to be anxious about their needs.
This is how, logically, what we believe about God is directly connected to our anxiety about money – which is directly connected to our attitudes and behaviours. If we have faith and trust God, then our anxiety decreases and our attitude and behaviour improve. If we lack faith and don’t trust God, then our anxiety increases and our attitude and behaviour get worse.
Why Should We Be Anxious?
Sometimes it helps if we look at the contradictory, opposite logic. So, let’s do that. We’ll work through the same premises, but in mirror. So, why should we be anxious?
Premise 1: Life is about the survival of the fittest, gathering food, clothing, shelter, and stuff to protect us – and competing with others for those resources.
Premise 2: God doesn’t know our needs and refuses to provide.
Usually, these people give evidence in nature too. Fire, floods, earthquakes, famine, drought, wars. The planet is out of control and tomorrow may bring ruin.
When we tie those together, all the stuff that God and the Bible say about righteousness, good living, being generous, trying to be holy, is ridiculous and makes zero sense.
Therefore, the only way to be safe is to lie, cheat, steal, enslave, use people, ruin our relationships, and selfishly hoard things, and do whatever is necessary to keep it safe. Therefore, since it’s survival of the fittest, the first thing to seek is whatever makes you more powerful and secure, and to sin in whatever way you can to get ahead, because we’re all on our own. Therefore, everyone should be way, way more anxious about not only today but tomorrow – because we have no idea what’s coming.
Which way do you live? Anxious and stressed out, cutting corners and cheating to get ahead, not sharing, avoiding spiritual development because it’s wasting your time, not caring about your purity, because it doesn’t matter since God doesn’t know or care.
Or, do you trust Jesus when he says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Mt 6:33)
Jesus says it this way to all us anxious people later in Matthew 11:28–30 is, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Let’s close: In the desert, the Israelites were given manna from heaven every day. They couldn’t store it up because it would go bad at night. They had to trust God every day. They grumbled and complained and tried to make piles of it, but it rotted – and every day God still provided. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt 6:11) because a believer acknowledges that this is all we need. Too much or too little poisons our souls. In Proverbs 30:7-9 the wise teacher prays, “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
His prayer is simply for God to give him what is necessary to live a holy and righteous life – because anything else is spiritually dangerous.
The final thing I want to show you this morning is a clip from May 20, 2000. It’s one of the most famous modern sermons, known as John Piper’s “Seashells” message. This message exploded off the platform and has ripple effects to this day. I want to end with this clip which I hope you will watch prayerfully.
We’re about to enter into a time historically known as “Passion Week”, starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday. It’s a week filled with history and meaning. This is the most important week of the Christian calendar. Centuries of history have revolved around it and believers from all manner of different traditions observe and celebrate it differently. Some people fast, others sing, some have prayer vigils, some read the bible from cover to cover, some even shave their heads. Each tradition has their own way to show worship by sacrificing something special in their lives to focus on God.
In their own ways they are living out what is written in Romans 12:1-2,
“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.”
Before Jesus came, believers use to present sacrifices of animals or grain to the temple on certain days, but now, because of the work of Jesus, we have moved from presenting our worship and sacrifices in a certain building to living out our lives as sacrifices to him – still trying to make them pure, unblemished, holy and acceptable to God, but knowing that we can only do this through the power of God.
Please open up to Matthew 21:1-11 and we’re going to tie together our series on Stewardship with the sacrifices of worship we see in the account of Palm Sunday.
“Now when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.’ This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’”
Going Through the Motions
Our theme today is worship, particularly the importance of having a lifestyle of worship, but more than this – that worship in itself, true worship, is sacrificial – it costs us something. I just watched a clip of a sermon recently where Matt Chandler was gently confronting some people in churches in Texas with the understanding that just because you go to church doesn’t make you a Christian. He said,
“In the Bible Belt churches are jam-filled with people who have no mark of being Christians on their lives other than the fact that they attend once a week. No obedience whatsoever, no desire for obedience, no relationship with Christ, no seriousness about God…. You come, you check it, and you call yourself a Christian. And I want to lovingly tell you that if there is no desire for obedience and no obedience then you should not count yourself a Christian. You should consider yourself lost and in danger of damnation.”
That sounds like it could be harsh, but he’s right. He isn’t talking about “salvation by works” but the changed heart that comes when we turn our lives over to Jesus. He’s talking about sacrificial, lifestyle worship. There is no true faith without obedience, there is no true worship without sacrifice.
Most people here understand the concept of sacrifice. Parents know what it means to give up our time and resources for our kids. Military people know what it means to make sacrifices for their country. The disasters that keep coming at the world all have relief organizations that want some of our money to help people. Some people even donate their own blood for the sake of others.
I think we understand the concept well enough, but what we need to see is that to be a worshipper of God demands sacrifice. We see that all through the Bible: there is worship that God accepts and that God rejects, and most often the worship He rejects is the easy, mindless, going through the motions activities of religious people. Sing because it’s time to sing. Talk when it’s time to talk. Bow heads when it’s time to bow heads. Read the words written down because you’re supposed to. Look at the guy talking for as long as he’s talking. That disengaged repetition of mindless, religious activity is worship that God rejects.
But let’s take a look at some of the people involved in the Triumphal Entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday. We don’t see people dropping money in a plate, reading a script, or doing anything in the temple in this story. What we see is some of the ways Jesus required them to sacrifice to Him as an act of worship.
The Donkey Man
First, let’s look at the man who gave up his donkey. Jesus had told his disciples to go to the village ahead and get a donkey that was tied up. The book of Luke (19:20-34) sheds a bit more light on this situation: Jesus says,
“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you untying it?’ tell him, `The Lord needs it.’ Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
Notice that little difference? The owner is in this one.
Imagine what was going on in this guy’s head. There he is, working on something around the house and some random guys come up try to walk off with two of his animals. The disciples are just being obedient, but what about the owner?
Consider yourself. You’re washing your car in your driveway. The door is open and the key is dinging away. You step into the garage for a moment to get something and a couple of guys walk up, get in the car, and prepare to drive off. You come running out and say, “Where are you going in my car?!” And the people inside respond, “The Lord needs it….”
Now it’s decision time, right? What do you do? Therein lay the sacrifice. The moment he heard that the animals were to be used by the Lord, his argument stopped. He sent his valuables, maybe his most valuable things, on with these strangers. Maybe God prepared this man in advance as he was praying, or maybe he didn’t. All we know is that when the Lord wanted something from him, he gave it up. He didn’t even know what Jesus was going to do with it.
The simple question for us is this: Would you or I have done the same? Would we have let the disciples take our car? We’re presented with this option more often than we think as God gives us the opportunity to sacrifice what we have for others. Someone gets into trouble, someone needs our time, energy, money, resources, and we are presented with the option to give. We feel the impression in our heart to do something. Someone calls us with a need. What do we do? We analyze the situation. We ask questions. We wonder about return on investment. We negotiate how little to give. We try to find other options. But what if the only reason we get is, “The Lord needs it”? Regularly giving up our resources is part of what a lifestyle of Christian worship looks like.
There’s another group that gives of their resources in the story too. Verses 7-8 tell us that there are folks who were spreading their cloaks on the ground. As an act of worship, a way to show their deference to Him, and also a way to acknowledge and declare that He is their promised Messiah and King.
These weren’t their old “Goodwill” or “Salvation Army” clothes either. They didn’t run home and get the jacket they never use anymore. This was whatever they were wearing. But even that doesn’t sound like much of a sacrifice, right? A couple donkey hoof prints on there. But anyone who has ridden horses or has been to a parade knows that something else happens when animals go for a walk – there’s a reason the street sweepers follow the horses.
The point is that these people, upon seeing Jesus, started to worship Him and that worship required an immediate sacrifice of what they had. Honoring Jesus will require the use of our time and our resources. We cannot grow as a disciple of Jesus if we don’t spend our time and resources on Him. This, what we are doing here at church, is not the pinnacle of Christian experience and I feel sad for anyone who thinks it is. Sure, we have to get up, some people have to serve, but this is perhaps, the easiest sacrifice of our week. The real test of our Christian character, the real opportunities to give sacrificial, lifestyle worship come later in the week as we are presented with opportunities to give of ourselves to do what God wants us to do.
Consider St. Patrick, whose special day was just a few days ago. Despite the day now being about celebrating Ireland, wearing green, and generating green vomit, the story of St. Patrick is one we shouldn’t forget.
Patrick was born in northeast England, not Ireland, in the late fourth century. When he was 16 years old he was kidnapped by Celtic pirates, taken to Ireland, and sold as a slave to a tribal chief who put him to work as a cattle herder. He was raised in the church but it wasn’t until he faced this level of suffering that his faith started to take root. Seeing the beauty of the Irish countryside caused him to worship God’s amazing creativity and it was in the total isolation of slavery in a foreign land where he really learned to pray.
He was held captive for 6 years until he escaped, made his way back to England, and joined the priesthood. He trained and served many churches but then, one day, at age 48 God told him that he needed to go and share God’s love with the unreached Irish Celts. This was unprecedented, totally controversial, and he gained little support – but after a time of negotiation the church finally, and reluctantly sent him off to the barbarians, likely to never see him again.
What was unique about the way Patrick did missionary work was that he didn’t go into the land and try to civilize it. He didn’t try to turn the Irish into good, English people, build English churches, and teach them English songs. He knew that wouldn’t work because he knew the people. So he gave up the way he was used to worshipping for their sake. He gave up his own style for their sake. He spoke their language, gave them his time, his prayers, his food and resources to the poor, and most especially his forgiveness. He gave his whole life to them.
It was this heart of sacrifice that enabled thousands of people to meet Jesus for the first time and gave rise to one of the greatest missionary successes of all time. Patrick was a man who knew what it meant to worship God by sacrificially serving others.
The Sacrifice of Reputation
There’s one more sacrifice I want to point out in the account of the Triumphal entry and that is the reaction of the crowds. Calling out “Hosanna!” to Jesus was dangerous. They put their reputation and their safety at stake. It was a thumb in the nose of the Jewish ruling class, the Sanhedrin. It offended the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. And, perhaps most dangerous of all, it risked reprisal from the Romans who did not take kindly to anyone claiming to be another king, “the Lord”, or “the Highest”. Their worship required risk.
Consider our own societies celebrity worship culture. Society holds them up for all to see, watches them on TV, listens to interviews, seeks them out on YouTube, wears what they wear, eats what they eat, reads what they read, go where they go. People on the sidelines of the award shows often yell things like “I love you!”, and companies make contests of just spending one hour with a certain celebrity, but it’s all with very little risk. We can shout how much we love Jennifer Lawrence or Vin Diesel from the rooftops until we’re blue in the face and no one cares – but have you noticed what happens when someone stands on a rooftop in front of a crowd and shouts that they love Jesus? Doesn’t’ really happen, does it? Why? Because that’s different, isn’t it? That’s got risk.
When the people in Jerusalem that day were yelling “Hosanna” they weren’t yelling “I love you!” They were yelling, “Save me!” Hosanna is literally the word “save”. They were crying out to Jesus for deliverance. This wasn’t about His celebrity status, but about deliverance. Deliverance from their Roman oppressors, their corrupt civic leaders, and the mess that their religion was in. It was a cry for mercy, an acknowledgment that He was the Saviour.
It’s one thing to yell that you love Jesus in public – you might get away with that in North America – but it’s totally something else to yell out that Jesus is the only Saviour and Lord of the Earth.
We have a hard enough time asking for help, don’t we? We’re all about self-help, self-determination, self-esteem, do-it-yourself. For some people, it’s almost agonizing to ask even those closest to them for help. So many people suffer alone, and it requires a massive sacrifice of pride for them to admit they need help.
But when we cry out to Jesus, that’s exactly what we are doing. We are asking for His help, admitting that we are not enough, that we require His intervention. As Christians we first admit that we are sinners, bent away from God, serving ourselves and messing up our lives and the lives of others. Then we ask for forgiveness, something only God can grant. We cannot forgive ourselves. Then we ask to be reborn, remade, changed from the sinner that we were into a new creation that hates sin and wants righteousness. Only God can do that. And then, every day, we admit once more that we are not strong enough, wise enough, good enough, to accomplish even one right thing without God’s help.
Many come to God in prayer but actually refuse to admit they actually need His help. They use God like 911 or like Santa Clause, the last resort or the way to get something they know is a long-shot. Some treat God like a help desk, asking for a minimal amount of help when they get stuck and then telling God that they’ll take it from there. They believe they are 90% strong enough, and that God gives them the other 10%. That’s not how it works.
A Christian recognizes their deep need and falls before Jesus saying, “I don’t have anything to offer. I’m dead inside. Whatever I touch gets worse. Even my supposed good deeds are done selfishly. I am a sinner in need of a Saviour. Hosanna, Jesus. Save me.”
And there are some that will admit this in private – but these people were doing it in public. Listen to Luke 19:37-40:
“As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’”
The leaders of their city were offended and trying to stop them. Most Christians I know won’t even pray a simple prayer in public – they are too nervous, too ashamed, too worried about what others think. Some refuse to sing even in church because they’re worried what others think. Some go to work and literally no one knows they are a believer. Some won’t even say grace with their own families out of fear. But these people cried out for help right in front of their friends, the priests, the Pharisees, the Roman centurions.
According to Luke 19, as Jesus rode he wasn’t smiling, he was weeping because He knew what was coming. Jesus rode up to the temple, once again drove out those who were selling there, and then began to teach. Listen to what it says in verses 47-48,
“And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words.”
The people turning their hearts and attention to Jesus, crying out for his help in public didn’t convert the city – but instead threw it into an upheaval. Their sacrificial worship, their willingness to cry out to Jesus in public, was the catalyst that made the city leaders want to utterly destroy Jesus. And they tried. And that persecution caused all of the believers, even the disciples, to flee.
When you call out to Jesus, people are going to think you’re crazy. There’s a risk. Calling out to the Saviour has risk. Your friends, your family, your fellow church people, may see you as a fanatic, may tell you to calm down, not be so serious, that there are a time and place for that sort of thing. That’s what the Pharisees tried to tell Jesus and his followers.
My conclusion is simply this: the worship God accepts requires sacrifice. It is a reflection of our thankfulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. He gave up everything, came to a world that would hate Him, reject Him and crucify Him, for our sake. He lived as a servant every day and still lives as a servant to His people. Our response is to do the same to Him by giving our lives to Him. Not just one morning per week, but every moment, every action, every decision of our lives. And that will require sacrifice. Without sacrifice, there is no worship.
Do you live a lifestyle of sacrificial worship? Do you spend your time, resources, and reputation on Jesus? Do you risk your time, resources and reputation to worship Jesus? Or does it only happen in closed rooms and dark corners? Does your worship require sacrifice?
Is there something God has asked you to give, some way He has called you to obey, that you’ve refused because it was too much, too risky? What if “The Lord needs it” from you?
And, finally, ask yourself if you ashamed to call yourself a Christian. Does your lifestyle, your words, your deeds, your conversations, your prayer life reflect that you are a believer? Have you cried out “Hosanna” in the streets? I’m not asking you to get on a rooftop this week or stand on a street corner – but how about this: does everyone in your life know you are a follower of Jesus?
At the very least, will you take the risk of showing your faith in a practical way this week? Pray in public, share your faith, tell someone that you are a Christian.
We’ve been working through a series on Stewardship over the past few weeks. Stewardship is the word that Christians usually use to talk about how we see and use all the good things that God has given us in this world. Our jumping off point was 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 where Paul is asking the church to set aside some money he can bring with him to help out the needy church in Jerusalem, but hopefully, by now we’ve all realized that godly stewardship encompasses so much more than just our finances.
We’ve talked about a lot of subjects in this series. We’ve talked about the reputation the church has with the world around us when it comes to money, why we pass the plate on Sundays and the importance of building a habit of a lifestyle of generosity.
We’ve covered a few big Stewardship questions, the first of which is “Whose is it?”. Regardless of whether it’s our time, talents, treasure, or testimony, the first question Christians need to ask is, “Whose is it?”. The answer to that question radically our outlook. If it’s mine then I can do whatever I want – but if it’s God’s, then that means I’d better ask Him what He wants me to do with it.
That led to the study of the Parable of the Talents where we asked the second big question, “What am I supposed to do with it?” and the most general answer to that question was simply, “God wants us to do something with it that will serve others and honour Him.”
Next came a discussion of the “risk” of using what we have and how our perception of God changes how we see everything we have. If we believe God is generous, then we will be generous with others – but if we feel God is holding out on us, then the risk sharing is too great and we end up holding onto things more tightly and share a lot less.
Which brings us to last week’s message where we moved from not only talking about taking the risk to do “something” with what God gives us but how to use these gifts “best” We started with God’s gift of time and how to perceive and use it in a biblical way.
Along the way, I came up with a brief statement to challenge us and clarify what Christians believe about the use of their time, talents, treasure, and testimony. It simply says, “Everything is God’s and I am a steward of His resources. I will use what He has given me, as best I can, His way, despite the risks involved.”
Are you with me so far? If you want to get caught up on the series, head to my Art of the Christian Ninja blog and you’ll be able to read and listen to them all there.
Talents and Abilities
Today I want to talk about the stewardship of our Talents and Abilities, but first I want to show you this:
David Green said at the end there, “We do not own this company but we’re the stewards.” His son, Steve Green said, “This business has been blessed by God. He has given the family the skills and ability, the opportunity, the time, the ideas – all of these have come… from God, and so for us to lay claim to any of that would be wrong.”
And then Debbie Kinsey, “Management Ministries Coordinator” – which I don’t know what that is, but it sure sounds like an interesting position – she said she heard an employee say, “I clean restrooms and I clean floors to help David Green get the gospel spread worldwide.”
That is a group of people that have a good, Christian understanding of Christian stewardship.
Whose Am I? – Radical Individualism
It all goes back to our first question, right? Whose is it? – but in this case, it’s a little different. It’s not, “Whose is it?? It’s, “Whose am I?” All throughout the scriptures, we are reminded that everything is God’s – the sky, the seas, the animals – but we sometimes forget that we ourselves are God’s.
We live in a radically individualistic society. For a long time societies, cities and nations were built on the premise that the family, the church, our countrymen, the state, the king, or God was the highest thing of value, worth the higher honour, and the most worth protecting, that has shifted in our culture to the highest value being individual rights.
It used to be that if someone’s life was going off the rails, they were making bad decisions, they were being selfish, you could say, “Don’t you know that you’re hurting your family, you are having a bad influence on your friends, you need to change your ways because your life is having a negative effect on those around you.” That concept is more and more foreign today.
Now, we are told from a very early age that we are special, distinct from the group, that the highest consideration in our life should be our own needs, wants, desires, hopes and dreams. This is seen as breaking the bondage of the oppressive forces that have held people down for so long – parents, religion, government, teachers, and everyone that says “no”. The heroes of modern stories are less and less the ones who put themselves second and fight for others or the “cause”. Now more and more of our society’s “heroes” are the ones who break away from everyone else, do what they want, and become whatever they want to be. Instead of running toward others, they run away, and then attract likeminded others to them.
I like superhero movies and I’ve noticed that even the superhero genre is affected. Superman used to put himself at risk and fight for “truth, justice and the American way”, but now he’s brooding, distant, and seems only to fight begrudgingly. If you’ve seen the new Superman movies you’ll remember Superman’s Mom’s advice:
“I never wanted this for you. Be their hero, be their monument, be their angel, be everything they need you to be – or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
That’s radical individualism. Even though you’re Superman, sent to earth to help people and be a good example, his mom is like, “Meh. Who cares about the world? Do whatever makes you happy, kid.”
As we’ve moved farther from God we’ve become more enamoured with ourselves. As we’ve allowed sin to dictate more and more of our actions, we’ve pushed God and others more and more to the side. As we grow more radically individual, our moral compass gets more out of whack. Think about it? What do the rise in abortions, the legalization of drugs, the crazy divorce rate, social media addiction, the destruction of our environment, the military’s consistent recruitment struggles, and the legalization of assisted suicide have in common? Radical individualism.
If the universe revolves around you, then why keep the baby if it will just be a burden to you? If my desires matter most, why not get stoned whenever I want, even when at work or driving? If my happiness and comfort is paramount why stay in a difficult marriage? Why not litter everywhere and mow down a rainforest? Why should I put myself at risk of getting shot somewhere overseas or be stationed somewhere I don’t want to live? And then, if it’s all about me, why not kill myself when I feel like I’m not accomplishing what I want to do anymore?
We Are Not Our Own
That is the absolute opposite of what Christianity teaches. The Bible teaches us that we are not our own. Listen to some of these verses: “…you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 137:13) “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.” (Job 10:11) The way you look, how your body is built, your height, eye colour, beauty and deformities are all designed by God. Same with your neighbour, your child, and your friend.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That means that not only did God design us, but also made each of us able to do good works, and then prepared some things for us to do!
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says to Christians, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” The Bible doesn’t present anyone in this world as free. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34) An unrepentant sinner doesn’t actually do whatever they want, they do what sin wants them to do – which is why it ends up destroying them. In the same way, a Christian doesn’t do whatever they want, but instead have given themselves to God. They were ransomed from hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He paid the price and now owns them.
Romans 6:16-18 says it this way,
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
The Bible doesn’t present anyone as being free in the ultimate sense (full-autonomy). No one. Everyone is in servitude to someone – either sin or Jesus. Christians recognize this and say, “I’m so sick of being tossed around and beaten by the my slave master, Sin. I am regretful of all that it has made me do and wish I could get away from him. But I’m trapped and he owns me.” Jesus says, “I will pay your ransom. I will buy you back from sin and death. I will trade my life for yours and then be your new master, your new Lord. And my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come and be with me.” Part of being a Christian is making Jesus not only our Saviour, but our Lord. And recognizing Him as Lord means recognizing that we are not our own.
You Are a Gift
But there’s another way that we are not our own. Throughout the Bible people are presented as gifts to one another. I can’t think of anyone in the Bible that was placed on earth to be by themselves.
It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God presented Eve to him, and they were to live life together. Abraham was brought out of obscurity not to be made special, but to be the father of nations by which the Saviour would come. Joseph wasn’t made the most powerful man in Egypt because he was so talented, but so the Israelites could be saved from famine. David wasn’t made king because he was so strong and popular, but because He was a servant of God who could defend and lead his people. His successes and failures affected everyone. The times when things to really wrong in the Bible is when people get selfish. Their sin ends up spreading all over the place and ruining all kinds of things.
Consider Jesus. Listen to Colossians 1:15-18, “
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
That’s quite a description, isn’t it? Everything was “created through him and for him”. The word, “firstborn” there doesn’t mean Jesus was created, it’s a title. He’s the prince of all creation, the one who will inherit it all. Everything is His. He is preeminent.
Now listen to Him teaching His disciples in Matthew 20:25-28,
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Jesus, the preeminent One, says, “No one on earth, not even me, is an island unto themselves. Everyone is a gift to everyone else.” Jesus didn’t come as king of the universe, but as the ultimate servant, the ultimate gift to mankind.
That’s how Christians see themselves – not as mere individuals, but as gifts to each other. First, when we are born, we are given as gifts to our family. We cherish babies of all kinds because they are gifts to us from God. Then, as we grow, we live and serve our family, placing their needs above ours – and they do the same for us. We learn how to serve and be served as we are part of a loving family. Then, we leave our family and we are given as a gift, and receive the gift of a spouse. We get married to someone who helps in ways our family can’t – and we help them in ways their family can’t. In the ups and downs of marriage we learn how to be more holy, more selfless, more humble, more giving, more sacrificial – in short, more like Jesus. And then, in marriage we are given as the gift to our own babies, and the cycle continues.
But more than that. Throughout our lives God gifts us to more people. We are given as a gift to our country to be a good citizen. We are a gift to our church. We are given as a gift to our friends and neighbours. We are given as a gift to our workplaces, our employers and employees, to help each other flourish and find meaningful work in this world.
But as I said, this all gets messed up when selfishness and radical individualism take hold of our hearts, when we start to erect borders and walls between us and others.
- We try to erect the wall of racism, saying that our people group is better than another, refusing to help or listen to others because of a difference in skin colour or nationality.
- We erect economic walls believing that rich people are better than poor, or poor are better than rich, or the middle is better than anyone else.
- We erect walls between the sexes, chauvinism that says men are better than women, and messed up feminism that says women are better than men.
- In the church we see all kinds of these walls, like ageism where young people and old people can’t get along, even long enough to sing the same song.
The devil plays us against each other and they we do his work for him. All of these divisions are ungodly, sinful, and dangerous. Galatians 3:26-29 says to believers,
“…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
It says, “Guys, the divisions are gone. It’s not about you. You’re all family now. So live for each other.”
The Bible says repeatedly that God has given each of us different sets of gifts to steward. Some have more time, others less. Some have more talents, others less. Some have more money, others less. Some have more experience, others less. Our job is just to figure out what God has created us to do and then go do it. And whatever that is, it’s always going to be about honouring God and serving others.
Three More Things
I just want to say three more things and then I’ll close.
God Don’t Make No Junk
First, I hope that this study helps to changes our perspective of ourselves and others. Sometimes we look at ourselves or someone else and think, “Wow, I’m useless. I’m not strong enough, not brilliant enough, not creative enough, not old enough, not young enough, not experienced enough, not put together enough. God made me wrong and I don’t really have a place in this world. If I was more like this person or that person then I’d really do good, but I’m not.”
I hope this study helps you see that no one is useless. No one is an accident. And, because of the grace of God, no one is beyond his ability to use for His Kingdom. You have strengths, even if you haven’t discovered them. You have abilities, even if you’ve buried them under a pile of sin, fear and shame. But even if you were utterly incapable of doing anything – like a newborn baby – you would still have inherent worth because you are a child of God and one of His image bearers. As they say in the South US, “God don’t make no junk.”
I thought it was really interesting when David from Hobby Lobby in the video said that he used to feel guilty because his whole family went into ministry but he had a heart for selling things in retail stores. He felt bad because he thought that God like ministers, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers better. Why? Because he had a poor understanding of what God expected of him.
If you are constantly comparing yourself to others and trying to be something God didn’t create you to be, you are going to feel like junk. And, on the other side of the coin, if you judge people by your own standards and not God’s, then you are going to see them as junk. You are going to look at your own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of others as problems, excuses as to why you and them aren’t good enough for God to use. And you will want to do what we all do with junk that has no value, that is worthless – you’ll want to throw yourself or them away.
But that’s totally wrong. As long as David thought that God only wants people to be pastors and missionaries he felt like junk. But once he figured out that God didn’t make him to be in full time ministry in a church, he finally figured out he can be in full time ministry by serving God in and through passion he has for managing retail stores and selling craft supplies. That’s amazing! And it’s true for you too. God calls very few people to be missionaries and pastors and teachers. He calls most people to serve outside the church, in their families, neighbourhoods and workplaces. And He uses people of all sorts to do it.
Moses stuttered. Abraham was old. Hosea had a super messed up marriage. David was a hothead who wanted to kill people who he didn’t like and then had an affair. Jonah ran away from his mission. John Mark ran away too. Elijah suffered from ministry burnout. Paul was blind, sick, and used to chase and murdered Christians. Timothy was so stressed out he had stomach problems. Lazarus was dead. And yet God used them mightily.
Whether you think yourself too weak, or you are that prideful person who keeps judging others as disqualified. Listen again to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We Will Be Judged
Second, I want you to realize that at the end of time, the Bible says that Jesus will evaluate every person, every Christian’s contribution to the life of the church and the deeds they have done. Just like the master came home and took account of what his stewards did with their talents, so will Jesus inspect what we have done with what he has given us. Listen to the words of Romans 2:6-8, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
How we use the abilities, talents and spiritual gifts that God has given us will be judged. Listen closely. Christian, your salvation is assured, because that is dependent on the work of Jesus Christ. Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
The foundation of our salvation is built by Jesus, but the life we build on that foundation, the way we use the gifts we’ve been given according to our ability, that will be judged.
We do well when we cultivate a healthy fear of God in this area.
How to Use Them Best
The third question of stewardship, if you remember, is “How do I use it best?”, right? So how can we use our talents and abilities best? That’s a tough one to answer because they are so varied, but let me try.
If you are serving in your wheelhouse right now, you know you’re where you’re supposed to be, then great. Give me a call and talk to some Christian friends about how you can grow in that area. But if you are like a majority of people and haven’t got that figured out yet, then what I want you to do three things:
First, ask God if you are doing the right thing or if you should change? Ask Him to guide you to where you are supposed to serve Him and be open to His call. I’m only a preacher today because I decided one day to be open to a radical change. So open your heart and ask God.
The second is to explore your gifts. In other words, try different things. Take a few personality tests, a spiritual gifts inventory, and a job placement test. Volunteer for different things to try them out. If you stink at it, that’s ok. You’re allowed to make mistakes here. We still love you. What better place is there to experiment with your interests than surrounded by a loving church family, right? There are a lot of people who are serving in the wrong place either because of fear or obligation or confusion. I don’t want that for you.
And third, I want you to get brave and talk to people who care for you about what they see in you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then listen. Be willing to try doing what they see in you instead of dismissing it out of fear or because it’s too much work.
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
Mortification of Sin
We’re jumping in and continuing on from last week, still on the topic of self-discipline and are continuing our discussion of what it means to take following Jesus seriously.
When we become a Christian and start following Jesus we are given an inward drive towards becoming more like Jesus – more holy, more righteous, more loving. “Be holy as I am holy”, God says to His people, and then gives us the help to do that.
We’ve talked before that we don’t do this in order to get saved but out of love and obedience for the One who saved us. We know we’ll never achieve perfection in this life, and that, because of our sinful nature we’re going to keep breaking God’s laws and doing wrong – but now that we are Christian we hate that sinful part of us, because it was sin that has messed up the world, our lives, and is what required Jesus to die on the cross. So we confess those sins every day in prayer, are thankful that God’s grace is so big and that the blood of Jesus covers all our sins past and future so we can be forgiven, and then we ask God for more help, more love, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more self-control in the coming day to live better. Not just to be a holier than thou Christian prude, but because we’ve seen how sin hurts us, others, and our relationship with God.
That’s how Christians see sin. That’s why we work hard to get rid of the sins in our life – what believers used to call the “mortification of sin”. We work with God to try to mortify, or kill, or subdue, the fleshly, sinful desires inside us that cause so much trouble.
God uses some pretty serious, life and death language when speaking of how we should deal with our sin and practice self-control. Listen to Colossians 3:1-6 says, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”
So, because sin is so serious, a believer engages in a process called sanctification. To sanctify something means to set it apart for special use, to be made holy. Grandma’s special china collection is sanctified by the fact that it is cleaned and then kept carefully in a china cabinet. Your favourite hockey card is sanctified by you taking it from the collection, putting it into a special protective case, and then mounting it on the wall. You are sanctified by Jesus as you are taken from the enemy camp into his kingdom, from death to life, from slave to sin to freedom in Christ, and made one of His special people.
If you remember way back in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 it told us, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We cannot be righteous without Jesus. We can’t redeem ourselves. And we cannot purify or sanctify ourselves without Jesus. The Gospel of Christ tells us the consequences of our sins – death, hell, pain, suffering, fear, addiction, brokenness. It tells us that Jesus has come to save us from all that by taking the penalty for sin upon Himself, wiping out its effects by taking God’s wrath against sin for us, dying on the cross, and then rising again to show that He has destroyed sin’s power – and then invites us to follow Him. This is what it means to be born again. When we are chosen by God and accept His invitation we are immediately sanctified. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice made it so that all our sins are perfectly dealt with and if we died today we would be with Jesus forever.
But at the same time, while we still live on earth we continue to deal with the echo effects of sin all around us. So, while we are perfectly clean in God’s eyes, perfectly accepted, perfectly redeemed, we also enter the process of sanctification in order to become more like Jesus every day. We use a lot of different phrases to describe this today. We talk about growing in God or becoming spiritually mature, but whatever we call it, part of that process is the mortification, or killing, of the sinful parts of ourselves that affect our daily walk in this world. We will never become perfect, but we continue to struggle against and work towards holiness. We “put to death therefore what is earthly in [us]…”
Going Through the Motions
Now, just like today, some of the people in the Corinthian church thought that since they professed faith in Jesus, went to church, and joined in the Lord’s Supper, they could then live however they wanted. Remember the context of eating meat offered to idols and causing those around them to stumble in their faith by going against their consciences. They figured that since they were Christians, they could do whatever they wanted! Paul wanted them to be absolutely clear that wasn’t true, it was a false belief, and so he used multiple examples
This still happens today. Young people who have gone to church their whole life are especially in danger of this way of thinking. They have gone to church for as long as they can remember, can quote verses from the Bible, serve in a couple places each week, go to Youth Group or Small Group, they can answer some Bible Trivia questions and take communion each month… so they figure they’re good. They’re covered.
The Bible says, be careful. There’s a big difference between saving faith and merely going through the motions of a believer. Of course, this isn’t just about youth. I’ve seen this at all ages. People who attend sometimes, do a little volunteer work, and say they believe… maybe they even had a tearful conversion at a summer camp or walked down an aisle at a crusade – but they’re not engaged in the daily battle against sin. And they’re not just disengaged, they don’t actually care.
This is most acute when the young person turns 18 and moves out or goes off to college or starts a job and is getting paid and is then given the freedom of an adult. Suddenly it becomes clear that their faith is extremely thin, they haven’t been working on their sanctification at all, and within a short time, they are in real trouble. They weren’t Christians, they were merely covered by the grace of their Christian parents.
It wasn’t they that decided not to look at pornography, it was the fact that it wasn’t available in the house. It wasn’t they that decided not to waste hours on the internet and video games, it was their parent’s rules and schedules. It wasn’t they that decided to watch their tongue, it was the peer pressure from their Christian friends. It wasn’t they that decided reading the Bible. going to church, being cautious about friendships, and the rest was important, it was enforced in by house rules.
And when they get that first taste of freedom from those rules, their true level of sanctification really shows. Soon they are addicted, indebted, depressed, lethargic, have turned their back on the church, and have just enough understanding of God to blame and resent Him for all their problems. Again, I don’t want to pick on just young people, I’ve seen this in seniors too, where the only thing that kept them from blowing up their life was external pressure, not internal sanctification.
This too is all over scripture. The wheat and the chaff, the good seeds and bad, parable of the sower, the sheep and the goats, wolves in sheep’s clothing, whitewashed tombs, play actors (Matt. 3:12; 13:1-30; 5:15; 25:31-46; 23:25-27) are all phrases where Jesus talks about people that look like Christians to everyone else but are not really saved. These people talk about God, come to church, and receive the blessings of being a Christian without ever turning away from sin and towards Jesus.
Think of it like a strong smell. Coffee shops have a distinct smell. So do hockey and curling rinks. So does a workout gym or the Body Shop store. You’ve probably had that experience when someone comes home from a night out and you can tell exactly where they’ve been just by the smell, right? They walk by and immediately you just what they’ve been doing because they carry the smell with them. My wife used to work at a place where she always came back smelling of bagels. She’d have to change her clothes and wash her hair before it would come out. I had the same problem when I worked at the pulp mill. I always came home smelling of black liquor, which is basically the waste product from turning trees into pulp. It smells a lot worse than bagels and there were times I would have to strip down right in the doorway and leave my clothes in the garage rather than bring them in the house.
In the same way, a non-believer who comes to church and hangs around Christians can pick up their smell – their lifestyle choices, their joy, kindness, high morals, honesty, etc. but not actually have faith in Jesus at all. They can even stay so long they start to believe they are Christians without actually giving their life to Jesus.
Israel and Us
Let’s turn back to our passage. As we saw last week Paul used himself as an example of spiritual maturity and self-denial, but now he goes the other way and uses Israel as an example of spiritual immaturity. “The perfect example of believing the false notion that one can be saved and then live a faithless, God-less life can be seen in what happened to the Jews’ ancestors in the wilderness…” He phrases this as a warning, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
These were people who were saved by God as Christians are. They had multiple, manifold, manifest spiritual blessings. Miracles galore. Their story is every Christian’s story. They were rescued at a great cost from an oppressor, delivered from death by the blood of the lamb, redeemed from slavery, and given a new life. They were guided by God’s presence, given direction in the wilderness and darkness of life. They had a law-giver and spiritual leader to follow, just as we do in Jesus. As they trusted in God their enemies fell before them and behind them. And all along, they were given daily provision to sustain their bodies and souls. Every day they saw a new act of God’s love for them. Paul then drives the point home reminding them that Jesus is God and was the one protecting and providing for the Israelites, just like He does for us!
A People Overthrown by God
But now look at verse 5, “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” This should give us all great pause. God worked miracles, set them free from slavery, and provided for them along the way – but their hearts were not with Him. They were like the young person living with Christian parents, or the citizen living in a civil country. They had the blessings of being a child of God, surrounded by the smell, but their hearts were not with Him.
The word “most” is a pretty big understatement since out of the thousands that left Israel, only two were allowed into the Promised Land! The rest were left to wander and die in the wilderness. They were people of God, who saw God’s miracles, but died in faithlessness.
So, what happened? It is the same story from the beginning of Genesis all the way to the end. They didn’t have faith, they didn’t believe what God had said, they didn’t trust in God alone for their salvation. That’s what God desires. The path of Salvation is fairly simple. It means trusting that what God says is true and believing that His way is the only way.
It was like that for Adam and Eve, many stories of the Israelites in the Old Testament, the Pharisees and Judas in the New. God’s message was clear, they chose not to believe it, and were therefore condemned and “overthrown” by God.
In verse 6 we read, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” Sometimes people wonder why we have the Old Testament when we have the New, or what value there is in the Old Testament. It’s ancient, full of difficult things to read, and the New Testament seems so much nicer.
This verse tells us one reason why. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is immutable, unchangeable. The God who wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah, killed everyone in the flood, and instituted blood sacrifices as the only way to appease His wrath against sin is the same God who came to earth as a baby, wept over Jerusalem, died on the cross, and taught us to love our neighbours. The Old Testament was Jesus’ Bible, the Apostle’s Bible, and the first church’s Bible, and was perfectly sufficient for teaching about faith, salvation and life. The Old Testament doesn’t tell a different story, but gives us the beginning of the story and we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t study it. Paul says that the stories we read of the Israelites and how God dealt with them are examples for us that we should learn from.
So what are we to learn? There are four main sins that are highlighted. Let’s read together, and notice how serious these warnings are. Starting in verse 7: “Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
The temptations the ancient Israelites went through are the same as we go through today, and the sins they commit that separate them from God are the same too. The stories of the Bible are there to instruct us, warn us, encourage us, and teach us about ourselves and God. So I’m going to ask you to do a little digging in your soul to see if these are represented there.
The first mentioned is idolatry, which references the story of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and while he was there Aaron and the rest of the Israelites crafted an idol to worship in place of God. It wasn’t that they were simply tempted to put their faith somewhere else, it was that they actively chose to reject Yahweh, formed a false god of their own, and then “sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play”, meaning they copied in the cultural, pagan festivals they saw around them.
They did, essentially what I’ve been talking about with young people and cultural Christians. While Moses was away they threw all their beliefs out the window and then worshipped, feasted, drank and danced the way they always wanted to, showing what was really going on in their hearts.
We do the same today as we turn away from God and put our faith and trust in things of our own design – money, insurance, diet, human authorities, or when we dabble with pagan things like horoscopes or superstitions. We can make money, comfort, food, or sex our idol as we turn to it to save us from pain, guilt, shame, fear. Remember the context of the Corinthian church eating food offered to idols and realize that Paul was also speaking of Israel’s example of eating, drinking and partying like unbelievers, throwing off God’s standards and doing whatever they felt they wanted to do regardless of how it affected themselves or anyone else.
If you want to know what idols you have in your life, ask yourself: what you do and what do you reach for when you hit a crisis hits or when you want to celebrate?
The second temptation for the Israelites was sexual immorality. Pornography, lustful thoughts, wandering eyes, sexual fantasy, adultery, and the rest. For them, this was tied to their idol worship. They used the golden calf and worshipping false gods as an excuse to sin sexually. Once they had crafted a god of their own, or borrowed one from a neighbouring nation, they worshipped it as the unbelievers did – which included sexual sins. As we’ve already learned, this was a huge temptation in Corinth, but just as much in ancient Israel.
The further you wander from God, the more you believe what the world believes and act like the world acts, the easier it is to fall for the temptation toward sexual sin. We’ve already talked a lot about that so I won’t belabour the point, but notice God’s punishment here. You might think, “Well, that’s back in the olden days, God doesn’t do that now!”
Listen to the words of Jesus in Revelation 21:5-8, at the end of the Bible: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty, I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’”
You may think Jesus is the warm and cuddly version of God that doesn’t care about sin, lets everyone do what they want, and lets everyone into heaven, but I assure you, He’s the same as He was with the Israelites. He may wait on the punishment, but I assure you that your faith is revealed in your actions and though you may not take your sin seriously, but Jesus sure does.
Does that mean a Christian who sins sexually can lose their salvation? No. As we said before, the difference is sanctification. The difference is that you hate that sin and want to be rid of it. Do you?
The third temptation was put Christ to the test. What does that mean? It means questioning God’s reliability. It’s when we declare God unreliable and then force or demand that He proves himself to us. The Israelites “put Christ to the test” as they told Moses that God and him don’t know what they are doing, that they would surely die of hunger and thirst, that life was better under slavery, that God was holding out on them, refusing to give them their favourite foods, and ultimately that God wasn’t strong enough to defeat their enemies. Over and over they said that God had left them and demanded more and more miracles. (Numb 21, Exo 17)
The Pharisees “put Christ to the test” too. Even though they had heard of and even witnessed multiple miracles, they continued to bring false charges against Jesus, tried to trick Jesus into making mistakes, and then demanding Jesus prove Himself with more miracles (Mark 8:11, Matthew 12:38-39). They even did it as He hung on the cross.
Satan “put Christ to the test” in the wilderness as he tempted Jesus to work miracles for wrong reasons – even tempting Jesus to force God Father to prove His love and prove Jesus’ was special by jumping off the top of the temple!
Have you done this? Atheists love this game. They love mocking Christians and telling God to dance for them, write in the sky, do a crazy sign, and then claiming God doesn’t exist when He refuses to play their game. Do you do this? Do you ever tell God that you’ll believe or obey if He’ll do something for you? Do you ever put yourself in a situation where God has to act just so you can see if He’s real? Do you ever question if God is good or His ways are right, and then deny Him when things don’t go your way? The Bible is clear that is a very serious sin.
Jesus responds, “An evil and adulterious generation seeks for a sign…” Jesus never rebukes or corrects people who are genuinely seeking Him out of need, but He also knows when people are coming with wrong motives.
And the fourth temptation was what is here called “grumbling”. Grumbling isn’t simply talking to God about tough things in your life that you don’t like. God wants us to bring our frustrations, concerns, worries and all the rest to Him. Grumbling is akin to complaining. It’s that low-level murmer in the heart where you keep telling yourself how horrible your life is, how it’s out of control, how the universe is out to get you, that God isn’t helping, nothing is right, there’s not enough money, time, energy, health, or anything else. Your friends aren’t really that good, your house isn’t right, your technology isn’t good enough, your spouse isn’t good enough, your life is too hard, too hot, too cold, too noisy, too quiet… murmur murmer grumble grumble complain complain.
This one is very difficult for me and one of my greatest temptations. I’m a child of discontent and have a very critical heart. I know this about myself and I have to be very careful about it. Why? Because grumbling is spiritually destructive and debilitating. It shows a lack of faith in God, a belief that He is unloving towards you. It’s a lack of contentedness and shows a misunderstanding of grace. It is the belief that you inherently deserve more than you have and God is unfairly holding out on you. It destroys your worship, your prayer life, your relationships, and your witness to others. A grumbling spirit leads to fighting with others, and envy, jealousy, covetousness. (James 4:1-3) “I hate that person. Their life is better than my life, their job is better, the have more of what I want…. And I hate God too for not giving me what they have.” There’s a big difference between complaining to God and complaining about God. Job complained to God but didn’t sin. Israel complained about God and did sin.
What about you? Are you a grumbler?
This section ends with, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. He is for you. He wants your sanctification and wants you to be more holy, because more holiness leads to more joy. He wants your spiritual success and knows what you need in order to grow. He knows your breaking points. Your temptations are not unique to you and he has given you scripture, fellow believers, and the Holy Spirit within you to help you understand them and get through it. And, when you are faced with the burden of temptation, God promises two things: a way out of the temptation, and the strength to endure it. The escape may not be immediate, but He promises that if you trust Him, lean on Him, ask Him, then you will have the strength to endure the temptation and mortify that sin within you – and then grow stronger in faith and in sanctification.
 Life Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians, Pg 135.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you ever had a gym membership? I’m amazed at how many workout places there are just in Carleton Place! There’ are traditional gyms with weights and machines as well as places for CrossFit, Gymnastics, Martial Arts, and of course, Zumba. I have had a couple memberships but, as you can tell, I don’t anymore. When I was younger I used to work out with my dad, and then as a student I liked going to the YMCA to play racquetball, but as the studies got harder and my family got bigger I let the gym memberships slide. Now I have a home gym and lots of catching up to do.
Like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Gymnasiums that they would join and do very much what we do today – and more. At first it was only for wealthy aristocrats, but eventually they were open to all citizens and became an integral part of all Greek cities. They were sort of like a YMCA. They would exercise, learn skills, and develop their endurance and character. They would learn lessons in wisdom and philosophy – and then learn how to wrestle, swim, run, shoot and more – all in the nude of course. The word Gymnasium comes from the Greek word GUMNOS which means “naked” – so it wasn’t exactly like the YMCA.
Sports and physical development were as popular then as they are now, and more so, which meant the Apostle Paul could hardly help from using it as an illustration in his letters. It was something everyone would understand.
He used it when talking to his younger ministry apprentice Timothy. Listen to how he phrases this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Ti 4:6–8).
The words Paul says in our passage today sound as much like the words of an athletic coach as they do a theologian or missionary. They are the kinds of things that coaches and spectators would shout at the runners to cheer them on during their training and competition. “Run for the prize!” “Remember your training!” “Hold yourself to a higher standard!” In fact, if you were going to be a member of these gyms or compete in the events you had to take an oath that you had done at least ten months of training, would promise follow the rules (2 Tim 2:5), live on a strict diet that had no wine or “pleasant foods”, endure the cold and heat, and submit yourself to whatever painful discipline they would prescribe.”
Sports in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece the sports competitions were even bigger than they are today. Today we follow our favourite teams, players, runners, boxers and fighters with interest – sometimes fanatical interest (which is where the term “Sports fan” comes from) – but it had much deeper meaning back then. The training and competitions were sacred events, dedicated to whatever patron god they worshipped. The stadium was as much like a church today as a sports arena. The race or the boxing match wasn’t merely a test of strength but a trial of excellence, like the Olympics. Today, gym class is scheduled once or twice per week and the kids get short recesses to stretch a couple times a day. In ancient Greece and Rome they considered physical development as equal to scholastic education. And we don’t have a corner on worshipping athletes either. In those days the winners wouldn’t just get crowned with a wreath as a prize, but would be adulated by fans, have songs and poems composed about them, and have busts and statues carved and displayed in front of the stadium.
I’m from Edmonton so I understand exactly what was going on there. They may have had their runners and boxers, but we had Wayne Gretzky. His statue, installed 1989, stood for 27 years outside the Oiler’s arena and was then refurbished and stands outside the new one. It’s a pretty big deal where I’m from. That’s the kind of respect and celebration the winners of the games could expect – Gretzky level fame. So it’s no wonder they trained so hard.
The Christian Life
We’ve just spent the past 4 sermons talking about how to share our faith, but these are not usually the kinds of things we say when we invite our friends to church or tell then what it means to be a Christian. If your friend comes up and asks what it’s like to be a Christian you don’t usually start with, “Well, we have super high standards, are constantly training and educating ourselves, take public vows to live by a certain set of standards, purposefully practice self-denial, endure suffering, and submit ourselves to whatever painful discipline that God prescribes to us. It’s great! You should totally join us!” It would be like trying to convert people to CrossFit or P90X.
But training, discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial are a big part of the Christian life and they are spoken of all over scripture. For our remaining time here I want to take a look at what Paul is saying in these few verses and draw some application out of it, so please turn back with me to verse 24.
It says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This is the continuation of something he’s been talking about for a while. It’s been a little while since we talked about it, but remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 8 we see that in this section Paul is talking about “food offered to idols” and the difficult situation it had created in the church. Some people thought it was ok because of their freedom in Christ while others had a really hard time with their consciences and felt it was not only wrong but a denial of their faith.
Paul addressed this problem by telling those who have no problem with it to bear with those who did and deny themselves for the sake of their brother. He says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
Then, in Chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the apostles as examples of self-denial that they should follow. He lists some of the things he is allowed to have, even that he has earned because of his work, but has chosen to deny himself for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of being a missionary he has chosen to go without a lot of really good things like food, a liveable wage, and a wife and family. He gave them up so he could serve God full time.
Then, in verse 19, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is totally sold out for the gospel of Jesus, laser focused on living a life where preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus is everything to him – and there’s nothing to get in the way; cutting everything out of his life that doesn’t line up with the call of Jesus on his life.
He’s like an elite athlete training for years to compete at the highest level. I’ve been long impressed with the Canadian athlete Clara Hughes. She’s an incredible athlete as well as a pretty amazing person. She’s one of only five people to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which she did in both cycling and speed skating. She’s translated her success into a lot of humanitarian organizations helping disadvantaged people and promoting mental health issues.
Now, all that being said, the one thing that impressed me most about her was her legs. Specifically, how different they look when she is competing in different sports or during her off time. If you see her today, her legs are – for lack of a better term – normal sized. When she was cycling her legs were big and strong, but when she’s was in full speed skating mode her legs were – again, for lack of a better term – gigantic. It was incredible to see the transformation and was an incredible reminder to me of what laser focused training can do.
When these athletes are in training for the Olympics everything matters. Every movement, every calorie, every minute of sleep, heartrate, body fat, type of food, amount of water, recreation, everything. Michael Phelps, said that when he was training and winning all his medals for swimming he did three things: slept, swam, and ate 12,000 calories per day. These athletes are single minded in their training and lifestyle.
That’s what Paul is talking about in verse 24. He sees himself as an elite spiritual athlete and sets himself up as the example. He even says in chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ” (1 Cor 11:1) He didn’t mean this in a prideful way, but as an apostle of Jesus, their pastor, and the one who planted their church, he was their prime example on how to live the Christian life, so he held himself to the highest of standards. He runs the race to obtain the prize, and encourages them to do the same.
Now, what this doesn’t mean is that he felt he needed to do all this in order to earn salvation. He didn’t think Jesus would turn His back on him if he stopped trying so hard. He wasn’t telling them that their place in heaven was at stake if they didn’t try harder. He didn’t say that God would love them more if they accomplished more. He wasn’t saying that their value and worth was tied to what they were able to produce. That goes against so much of what the Bible says about how God sees us. He loved us before we loved Him. He saved us before we asked for it. We were dead in our sins and He traded His Son for us. And there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.
Now, what the Bible is saying here is that, in light of the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ and the calling that we have been given as Christians who are on a mission in this world, we should take that seriously. God’s love compels us to love others. Jesus’ sacrifice compels us to sacrifice for others. Jesus obedience compels us to be obedient too. Because we know we are saved by grace, not by works, given something we could never earn, simply because we are loved, we are compelled, driven, to show love to Jesus by serving Him and others. Because of the new nature we have been given, where once we were dead in sin and only thinking of how to gratify ourselves, now we have been given new natures that want to honour and serve the One who saved us – the one we call Lord and Saviour.
Christians take this relationship very seriously, but we never think we need to do these things to impress, bribe, or appease God.
Think of it in human terms. As a dad, we work hard our jobs outside and inside the home. We work for 5 days and then take our kids camping or spend the weekend driving them around for their clubs and events, and then turn around and go right back to work. Then when someone asks, “Why do you work so hard? Why put in all the hours? Why do you spend all that time working and then come home and do more?” The answer isn’t simply because we have to… it’s because we love our families.
Grandma invites the whole family over and spends hours and hours shopping, preparing, and serving Christmas dinner. It takes an incredible amount of money, work, time, effort, and then every pot, pan and dish in the house needs to be washed. Why did she do it? Because she’s obligated? No, because it is a joy to serve the ones she loves.
A child spends 2 hours drawing, colouring, gluing, and folding a card for someone. It’s not their birthday or anything, they just wanted to make a card for them. Why? Why make all that mess and take all that time just to give their mom or friend a card? Because of love.
That’s the motivator to run the Christian race with seriousness and dedication: our love for Jesus. But loving someone has consequences, doesn’t it? If I dedicate myself to my wife, it means I cannot have any other woman in that way. My love for my children means that I will have to deny myself certain things for their sake. My love for my church means that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because of my obligations to them. My love for my friends means that when they need me I will put aside my own life and go to them. Love has consequences.
Love has Consequences
Jesus says something pretty serious two times in Matthew. Listen to these.
Matthew 10:22, “…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, Matthew 24:9-13, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…”
What did Jesus mean by “enduring to the end”? Love has consequences. Truth has consequences. Belief has consequences. Faith has consequences. Choice has consequences. Following and loving Jesus has consequences. Being a Christian has consequences and those consequences often mirror those of the athlete: high standards, loyal devotion, constant training and education, self-denial, suffering, and sometimes the painful discipline from Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith” . In fact, that title for Jesus is set in athletic terms too.
Let’s read that from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” , like a crowd of former Olympians watching us compete from the crowd, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Why would a runner or boxer or gymnast ever add unnecessary weight to themselves? Why compete in lead shoes? They want to be light and agile so they cut all unnecessary weight so they will have the endurance to last until the end.
And while the crowd of former spiritual Olympians look at us, who are we looking to for inspiration, guidance, training, help, strength and perserverance? It says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
His decision to love us had consequences. He endured great suffering and died because He chose to love us. In the same way we look to Jesus, as Paul looks to Jesus, as not only the example of what it means to follow God, but the one from whom we get our strength to endure.
Self-Control in All Things
In verses 25 it gives us one of the consequences of following Jesus, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” It’s the small things that are the difference between winning and losing a race. In the 1992 Women’s 100 Meter race the difference between first place and fifth was 1/10th of a second. In 1988 1000 Meter Canoeing it came down to a photo finish where the winner was ahead by 0.005 seconds or less than a centimetre.  That’s why they obsess over the details. The exact moment to stop exercising and eat the exact right food to have exactly enough to finish the race – but no more or it might slow them down.
“Self-control in all things.” We aren’t running to win a gold medal, but we do have an incredibly high calling. You look at your life and think that you’re doing pretty good – better than most people you know – but that secret sin that you think no one knows about will be what the enemy uses to cripple your mission and deaden your soul. That part of your personality which you know is a problem, but have just decided is part of you now, will be what keeps you from effectively sharing your faith. That habit of unforgiveness, bitterness, being critical, will keep you from being a good disciple maker. That schedule that is always out of control where you have no time for worship, rest, thinking, praying, reading, friends, or Sabbath, will be what kills you.
I’m not saying, and scripture isn’t saying, that God doesn’t love you or that you won’t be saved – what it’s saying is that if you refuse to practice self-control in that area, then you won’t be nearly as spiritually healthy, or hopeful, or happy, or peaceful, or joyful, or productive for the kingdom of God. It will be the wedge that creates space between you and God, the foothold by which Satan can climb on your back.
Train on Purpose
Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Having powerful muscles is pointless if you never use them to lift anything other than weights. Having strong fists and being able to take a punch is pointless if you never enter a fight. Being able to run for hours is pointless unless you use the strength and endurance you are building to actually do something for someone else.
An athlete doesn’t train for the sake of training. They don’t skate in circles and shoot a ten thousand pucks into an empty net because they like skating in circles and scoring pretend goals. A boxer doesn’t shadowbox and hit a punching bag for no reason. They do it so they can live out their purpose. They skate and shoot so that when the time comes they will be able to win the game. They punch bags so they can eventually win the fight.
Firefighters don’t exercise just to stay healthy, but so they have the strength and endurance to save people when it matters. Police and military officers are required to exercise and pass physical endurance tests, not so they will look good in uniform, but so they can enforce the law and help the community.
In the same way Christians don’t merely live, but we live with a purpose. We don’t merely read the Bible, but we read with a purpose. We don’t merely pray, but we pray with a purpose. We sing, serve, correct, deny, give, share, speak, eat, and all the rest with a purpose. Some of that purpose is universal for all believers: We do what we do for the glory of God and to enjoy Him forever. We do what we do to advance the kingdom of God and spread love, justice, and mercy.
But some of that purpose is specific to you. God has given all Christians a special gift and a special purpose to their lives. As Christians we work to find out what that gift is, and then we use that gift to live out that special purpose. Christians are not aimless, but are very purposeful in what we do. And not just in work, but in rest too, right?
You likely know the old story of the young woodcutter who got a job on a logging crew by showing the boss how he could cut down 18 trees in one day. He loved the job and worked hard, but it wasn’t long until he started running into problems. On day three he cut down 15 trees, and then on day five he could only do 10, by the end of the week he was only able to do 5 trees. The foreman said that if he didn’t start cutting more he’d lose his job. He begged the for another chance saying he always comes early, leaves late, and never takes breaks! The foreman asks, “Well, when do you stop to sharpen your axe?” The young man replied, “Well sir, I just can’t do that. I’ve been working way too hard to take the time to do that.”
The point is that as a Christian, even our times of rest are purposeful.
Areas of Influence
Finally in verse 27 it says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Think of all the massive sports failures we’ve seen. Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong… the names are synonymous with the heights of sports and the greats of controversies and collapses.
This was probably Paul’s greatest fear – I know it’s one of mine. He wasn’t training and disciplining and denying himself to try to win God’s approval or earn salvation or impress anyone. He was doing it because he knew his mission was critically important and that it would be the small things that he neglected that would be his undoing. And then not only would he be disqualified, but a lot of people would be hurt. He was given great responsibility and a great mission, so he took it very, very seriously, because the consequences of messing up were so extreme. The words “discipline my body” are literally “I give myself a black eye”!
Now, we’re not apostles, and we don’t have dozens of churches that would be crippled if we mess up, but we all have circles of influence that are affected by our sin – which is what the last 2 chapters have been talking a lot about.
Why do you practice self-control when you drink and spend and say and watch on tv, mom and dad? So I won’t be disqualified as a parent and mess up my kids. Singles, why do you avoid certain places that everyone says are fun? So you won’t disqualify yourself and mess up your future. There are so many examples, right?
Think about the people you have influence over, whether it’s your kids, friends, siblings, coworkers, or church family. Part of the reason you train well and practice self-denial is for their sake. So that when they are hurting, they can come to you because you are trustworthy. So when they are in need you have the capacity to help. So when they are tempted, you can help them. So when you speak to them words of criticism, they will hear because you have a reputation for fairness and love. So when they need advice or a listening ear, they will call you because they know you will keep confidences and speak God’s word to them. It’s not just about you, it’s about those around you too. Let’s close there.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 279). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Kling, C. F., & Poor, D. W. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (p. 194). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.