Turn with me to Mark 8:27-33. This scripture occurs in the final year of Jesus’ earthly ministry as His focus has grown more steadily towards His journey to Jerusalem and the cross. He has already gathered His disciples and they have been with Him for a couple years. He has already done much travelling and teaching and has had a lot of run-ins with a lot of different people. At one point in his travels, it says,
“And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’”
You gotta love, Peter. He goes from telling Jesus who He is to arguing with Jesus about the very same thing. “Who am I?” asked Jesus. Peter says, “You are the Christ.”, meaning the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God and divinely anointed leader who will liberate God’s people from their great oppressor. In Peter’s mind that meant military victory over Rome and the establishing of the Jewish people as the rulers of the earth. Then Jesus starts to clarify what it meant for Him to be the Christ. He told them what would happen soon – rejection from the leaders of Jerusalem, a false trial before the chief priests, cursed to be crucified on a Roman cross, but then to rise again in victory. That’s not what Peter wanted to hear. Peter had an identity crisis on behalf of Jesus. The Christ can’t die! That sounds like defeat! So Peter starts to argue with Jesus, rebuking the One he had just called Christ. “No way! That’ll never happen! You have the power to stop that. You could use your power to overthrow Rome! You don’t need to die on a cross. Surely the angels will protect you.” Sound familiar?
Now turn to John 6. You will see at the beginning of this chapter the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Everyone was really excited about that. Look at verse 14.
“When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Another identity crisis. Jesus, in His compassion, feeds the hungry masses. They are impressed, call him “The Prophet”, meaning a man like Moses who God used to miraculously feed Israel manna in the desert, and immediately want to force Him to become King. And Jesus takes off. Now why did the people want to make Jesus King, and why would Jesus take off on them? After all, being the Christ makes Him king, right? Why run away?
Turn to verse 25-26,
“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’”
Same problem as Peter. Jesus Christ had come to save the people, not from the oppression of Rome, but from a much greater oppressor – death. And that plan required Him to go to Jerusalem, be falsely accused, have the sins of the world placed on His shoulders, and for Him to die under the curse. His coronation would come later, but that’s not what the people wanted. They wanted a king now. They wanted a new Moses. Jesus wanted to give them more. And if Jesus would have become King then, everyone in His Kingdom would still be under the curse of sin and death because He wouldn’t have gone to the cross. Jesus had a bigger picture.
Over and over in Jesus’ life, people kept misunderstanding who He was, why He had come, and what He was supposed to do. His family, friends, followers, and enemies all argued with Jesus about who He was and what He was doing. He was called crazy, demonic, and a blasphemer. Eventually, by the end of John 6, a huge amount of His disciples would leave, angry and confused about who Jesus claimed to be.
As we go through a study of the Apostles Creed in this section of the Heidelberg Catechism we are answering a few fairly straightforward questions that people have been asking about Jesus for literally two thousand years: Who is Jesus?
Last week it was the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” In other words, what makes the name of Jesus so significant, and what does it mean to us? And the answer was, “Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.” The name “Jesus” means “God Saves” and throughout His life Jesus claimed – and the Christian church has claimed ever since – that faith in Jesus is the only way anyone can be saved from the judgement of God against their sin.
Today we move from the significance of the name of Jesus to His title, “The Christ”. When Peter answered the question, “Who do you say I am?” that was His answer, and it was packed with significance.
Question 31 of the Heidelberg asks the question,
“Why is he called Christ, that is, Anointed?”
In other words, “What is the significance of calling Jesus ‘Christ’? What does it mean that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One?
During the trial before His crucifixion, Jesus stood silently as He was accused of a lot of things, but none of them held up, even in that false, kangaroo court they had come up with. But the High Priest, who didn’t care who Jesus really was and just wanted Him dead, had one more card up his sleeve. It says in Matthew 26:63-66,
“And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’”
Jesus was crucified because of the claim that He is “the Christ”. Why was that such a big deal? The Heidelberg summarizes it this way:
“Because he has been ordained by God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father; and our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the redemption obtained for us.”
Why was Jesus’ and His followers’ claim that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, such a big deal? Because He it said, and the Christian church says today, that Jesus is God’s perfect prophet, priest, and king. Those are the only people that get anointed by God – prophets, priests and kings. What does that mean?
Prophet, Priest, King
It means that Jesus claims, and we believe, to be the greatest of all the prophets or teachers. Over and over Jesus claimed to not only be talking about God but to be speaking the very words of God (John 8:28, 12:49-50, 14:24). In that way, He is greater than Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist or Peter. Jesus is our chief teacher because He is the One who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God because He is God. He is the best interpreter of the Law because He is the lawgiver. He is the best preacher of the gospel because He Himself is the good news. He is the best proclaimer of the kingdom of God because it’s His kingdom. Everyone other than Jesus knows a part of God’s plan. Jesus knows everything and was willing to teach us a lot of it when He came, and then even more through His Spirit within.
He is also the greatest priest, greater than all priests that came before. A prophet’s job is to tell us God’s word. A priest’s job is to bring the people before God by doing what is necessary to make us worthy and then interceding on our behalf. Jesus does this better than any other. Every other priest is sinful, Jesus is sinless. Every other priest offered animals, Jesus offered Himself. Other priests have to repeat sacrifices, Jesus was once and for all. Other priests offer sacrifices for a certain group of people, Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year, Jesus lives in Heaven and stands before God Himself. Other priests die, Jesus lives forever.
And Jesus is the greater King. Other kings are appointed by military might or birth Jesus was appointed by God. Other kings have boundaries to their kingdoms, Jesus’ kingdom has no borders. Other kings have thrones on earth, Jesus has a throne in heaven. Jesus’ kingdom has the greatest armies, the greatest victories, the highest power, the best laws, and will last for eternity because no one can overthrow Him. His word is not only law, but can actually bend reality to His will.
Who is Better than Jesus?
In the book of Hebrews in the New Testament the Christians there are being faced with persecution because of their faith and are considering giving up and either turning back to Judaism or their pagan roots. The whole argument of Hebrews stands on this question, “To where will you turn that is better than Jesus?” Back to Caesar, back to Moses?
That’s an echo of our question today. What makes Jesus special? Why should we put our whole faith in Him and no other, especially when it’s difficult, inconvenient, and causes us frustration or pain? Isn’t Jesus just a prophet like some other religions say? Isn’t He just a great moral teacher, as some secularists say? Isn’t He just a good model to live by, but not to take so seriously? Do we really have to give our whole allegiance to Him and Him alone, even when the world comes against us? Why does He deserve that kind of allegiance?
That’s what the audience to the letter of the Hebrews were considering. They were like the crowd in John 6 we talked about, standing before Jesus, asking for more loaves and fishes, as He said, “I’m not here to fill your bellies with bread. I am the Bread of Life. I was sent by God, spoken of by the prophets, and anyone who believes in me alone for salvation, that my flesh and my blood are the only way, will have eternal life. Everyone else who tells you any other way is a liar.”
Listen to what happened after Jesus said that.
“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66)
That claim – Jesus’ claim to be the Christ, the greatest prophet, priest and king, the only way of salvation, the one to whom you must swear sole allegiance to on His terms – was too much to ask for many. They didn’t want Jesus they wanted bread, so they left. It continues,
“So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67–69)
Gotta love Peter.
This was the same choice that was being given to the believers that the letter to the Hebrews was sent to, and is the same choice we are given now. Sure, we don’t live in a land where we face direct persecution or imprisonment for our faith, but our allegiance is tested in other ways every day.
I want to show another one of those videos that I showed you last week so you can see how this argument is shown in Hebrews, and hopefully inspire you to do your own study.
The Application for today is a simple one, and it comes from Question 32 of the Heidelberg.
“Why are you called a Christian?”
That title is an important one. If Jesus is the Christ and we are Christians, then there must be a connection. And the answer is this,
“Because I am a member of Christ by faith and thus share in his anointing, so that I may as prophet confess his name, as priest present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and as king fight with a free and good conscience against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.”
There’s a lot going on here that I’m not going to get into about the priesthood of believers and our eternal destination and place in God’s Kingdom, but I want to make this simpler. Do you trust Jesus as your Christ? Is He your perfect prophet, the One to whom you turn for ultimate truth? Do you trust Jesus as your perfect priest, the One who through His atoning sacrifice has made a way for you to stand before God cleansed from all your sins? Do you trust in Jesus as your perfect king, the Lord of your life who you obey with your whole heart? Where will you turn that is greater than He?
And then further, do you, as a follower of Christ, a Christian, in the Greek meaning “little Christ” – act as a “little Christ”? Do you publically profess and confess to being one of His, spreading the truth as one of his little-prophets, spreading the gospel, the message of reconciliation as what the Bible calls, one of Christ’s “Ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:18-20)? Do you, as a little-priest under Jesus, present your life to Him as a continual sacrifice (Rom 12:1), thanking him every day for what He has done for you? And, do you, as a little-king under Jesus, put on the armour of God (Eph 6:11) and do battle against your sin (1 Tim 1:18-19) so your life glorifies your Lord and King, Jesus?
This is not a threat from Jesus to “do a better job”, but an invitation to walk with Him. He offers you forgiveness and strength, defence and protection, a hope and a future, a mission and a reward if you are willing to accept Him as your one and only saviour. Will you do that today, and then live out that relationship every day?
“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:1–10)
Acts 2 tells the story of what happened on the day of Pentecost. At that time, thousands of Jewish people from all around the Roman world who had gathered in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus had all gathered together in one room, about 120 people, and in fulfillment of the promise of Christ, the Holy Spirit came rushing in, filled each one, kicking off the next phase in God’s plan of salvation – the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. The followers of Jesus began to speak in languages they previously didn’t know and everyone who heard was amazed and wondered what was going on.
Then Peter, the leader of the group, stood up and addressed the crowd with a sermon outlining what had been happening in Jerusalem, how it fulfilled the prophecies, and how it all revolved around Jesus of Nazareth, someone that they’d no doubt been hearing about. He told them of His life, false trial, lawless crucifixion, and His miraculous resurrection which could be attested to by the hundreds of witnesses standing around them. He told them that it was their sin, their rebellion, which had put the Messiah, the Lord, the Christ, on the cross. Jesus was crucified by their hands.
Acts 2:37 says this,
“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”
In Acts 16 Paul and his partner Silas are arrested, severely beaten, placed in stocks and dropped into a prison. Here’s what scripture says happens next,
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
What would your answer be to these people? Pretend you are Peter. There stands before you the very group of people that crucified Jesus. Among them are the very people that chanted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” There stand the lawyers who kicked off the false trial, the people that spit on him as He carried His cross to Golgotha, who mocked Him while He was dying on the cross. A group of people corrupted by false teachers, full of hypocrisy, claiming to be the chosen people of God, but who despised and killed His Son, the Lord whom you love. Now they stand before you, their consciences on fire, frightened of the judgment of God, and they say to you, “What shall we do?”
Or pretend you are Paul. You’ve been working hard in ministry but almost everyone in town seems to be against you. They mock you, the crowds beat you, the city magistrates have you stripped and beaten, and you’ve just spent the evening in jail, lying naked in a pool of your own blood, your feet bound in stocks. Now, standing before you is this pagan, Roman, jailer. So far from Christian, it’s almost unfathomable. He’s been listening to you sing and talk about Jesus all night and has just had a brush with death as he contemplated suicide to escape the wrath of his masters, and now He’s worried about the wrath of this new God he’s been hearing about all night. He’s on his knees before you, terrified and confused, utterly undone. He looks up at you and says, “What must I do to be saved?”
What do you say? Maybe your temptation is to blast them. Stop being hypocrites! Stop persecuting us! Stop worshipping your own good deeds. Start listening to what we have to say! Get on your knees and kiss the dirt, thanking God he doesn’t blast you right here! And you, Roman Jailer, you pagan, your life is a total mess! You need a complete overhaul. Let me write a list for you of all the things you need to do in order to be a good Christian. First you need to clean up your life. Go to church, listen to some sermons, join a small group, start serving, and don’t forget to tithe… oh and pray and study your bible and fast and sell your belongings and stop drinking and smoking and playing cards and… and…. But that’s not right.
Paul’s answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31). Peter’s answer was, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).
The answer to the question, “What must we do to be saved?” is a simple one. Believe Jesus is who He said He is – the friend of and saviour for sinners. Then, show that you believe in Him by admitting you are a sinner, repenting of your sin by changing your life, and be baptised in His name. It’s not that the repenting and baptizing save you. After all the thief on the cross who hung beside had no time to change his life, pay back his debts, do any good deeds, or be baptized, and yet Jesus says He’s in heaven right now (Luke 23:39-43). What saves you is faith. What shows your faith is a changed life and humbling yourself in baptism.
LD11: Why Jesus Alone?
Let’s turn to this week’s questions from the Heidelberg Catechism. If you recall, in this section of the Heidelberg we are studying the Apostles Creed and are on the second stanza, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son, our Lord…”. So question 29 is,
“Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?”
The name, Jesus in Greek or “Joshua” in Hebrew, was a common name at the time and literally translates to “Yahweh Saves” or “God Saves”. Many Jews gave their children this name as a reminder to wait for God’s salvation, but in Jesus it took on new meaning. It didn’t mean “God will save us someday”, but “Here is God’s salvation!”
So the question, “Why is the Son of God called Jesus, that is, Saviour?” is answered,
“Because he saves us from all our sins, and because salvation is not to be sought or found in anyone else.”
Question 30 follows by asking,
“Do those who seek their salvation or well-being in saints, in themselves, or anywhere else, also believe in the only Saviour Jesus?”
In other words, if we put this in our modern context, is everyone who talks about Jesus, knows the name of Jesus, or claims to have faith in Jesus – but clearly puts their faith in other things as well –saved? Is someone who says they are a Christian, talks about Jesus, sings about Jesus, but also believes in praying to saints, uses magic or astrology, lives superstitiously, or trusts in their own goodness or abilities an actual, saved Christian? What about Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, and Roman Catholics who all talk about Jesus but add a whole bunch of other beliefs and requirements to the gospel. Are they saved?
The answer in the Heidelberg and I believe it is scriptural is:
“No. Though they boast of him in words, they in fact deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour, or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, the Jesus they talk about, cannot be the Jesus of the Bible.
This is what Paul was saying in the passage in Galatians. When he said,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6-7)
he didn’t mean that the gospel distorters were leaving the church or had stopped calling themselves Christians. He meant that they were staying in the church as teachers, but adding things to the gospel that were nullifying it, making it a message that damns instead of saves. (Check out this article)
This is what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about – false teachers coming into the church and teaching that not only do people need to believe in Jesus for their salvation but that there is a list of a bunch of other things they had to do as well.
I want to show you a video that outlines the whole of Galatians so you can see Paul’s full argument here. I’m doing this for two reasons. First, I believe that this video explains this much better, more visually, and more concisely what Paul is saying in Galatians. And second, because I want to inspire you to watch the rest of these videos on RightNow Media.
I’ve talked about the importance of starting up some small groups in this church, and this might be a great series to do in your home. You can find that series when you go to the Recommended Studies section of the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media. And, if you want to study the book of Galatians in more detail, then I recommend a new study series that has come out by Kyle Idleman. I linked to it on the Heidelberg Helps section on our RightNow media church page. It’s only 6 weeks long, the videos take only 11 minutes to watch, the discussion guides are all free, and if you’re worried you won’t know how to lead it, the leader’s guide is only $8. No excuses not to have a small group in your home.
Back to our study though.
I hope you see, from scripture and the catechism here, how seriously God takes the idea of adding anything to the gospel. There is no salvation in “Jesus and something else”. Our human nature makes us want to add a bunch of religious hoops to jump through, traditions that must be kept, and lifestyle changes that need to be made in order to be saved, but that’s not how Christianity works. That’s how cults and false religions work, but that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) As the Apostles say, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Our human nature, even when we are presenting the Gospel, even with the best intentions, makes us want to include a list of laws, books, and to-do lists with salvation. We want to tell people about Jesus and salvation, but also about how to clean up their lives and become good people – meaning, people like us. But that’s not the gospel. Jesus didn’t tell us to go and make versions of ourselves, turning people into little Pastor Al’s, or little you’s. He told us to tell people that salvation is a free gift from Him and to follow Jesus alone.
In the New Testament, it was the Judaizers who wanted people to add the Torah to the gospel. Then it was the Catholics who wanted to add traditions and religious superstitions. Then it was the Mormons and JW’s who wanted to add good works and strange rules and new bible books. All of these are equally wrong, offensive, and paths to hell. Why?
Because even if these people use the name of Jesus,
“Though they boast of him in words, they, in fact, deny the only Saviour Jesus. For one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not a complete Saviour or those who by true faith accept this Saviour must find in him all that is necessary for their salvation.”
In other words, they don’t believe in Jesus for salvation. They talk about Jesus but believe that his perfect life and crucifixion isn’t enough. They believe Jesus needs their help. Jesus needs their help. And Jesus refuses, God refuses, to share glory, to share worship, to share His holy temple, or the temple of your heart with someone else. To do so is blasphemy. To say Jesus’ perfect life, death on the cross, and glorious resurrection was insufficient to save, is blasphemy.
Do you remember last week when I said that believing God’s provision to be transactional only leads to pride or despair? This is the same thing. Believing that we are the ones who must save ourselves by following a list of rules will either lead to pride because we saved ourselves and therefore steal glory from God, or it will lead us to despair because we will always be worried that we haven’t done enough to earn God’s favour and will, therefore, be damned no matter what we do. That’s the message of the world religions, cults, and false Christian groups. Take pride in saving yourself, or always feel guilty, ashamed, and afraid because you’ll never be good enough for God. It’s terrible, and why Paul was so upset when he heard about it.
Let me close with this. The only way we can say we are ever right with God is because of our belief in what Jesus did for us – not because of anything we did for ourselves. All we must do is believe in Jesus as the risen Lord and we are saved. Yes, this requires seeing ourselves as sinners which leads to the desire to repent, and then to obey him by identifying ourselves as His follower through baptism and worship and joining a church and changing our lives – but none of that saves us. If we believe in Jesus, we are saved – no matter what sins we have committed, and even if we completely mess things up afterward.
That’s why 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Not, if we beat ourselves up, or clean ourselves up, or do enough prayers, or read enough verses, or pay it all back, or anything else. Forgiveness comes to all those who believe in Jesus and ask for it. It’s automatic, built on the covenant He wrote, in His blood, on the cross. He did all the work.
I like something that Kyle Idleman, the guy who did the Galatians series on RightNow, said.
In Galatians… “Paul is letting the people in Galatia know that he has been down the religious road before and it doesn’t lead to freedom it leads to slavery. It doesn’t lead to transformation, it leads to frustration. It doesn’t lead to life, it leads to death. But Jesus has set him free from all of that. And what the gospel of freedom did for Paul, the gospel of freedom can do for you.” (https://www.rightnowmedia.org/Content/Series/229928?episode=Trailer)
In a few moments, we are going to have communion. We are going to come to the Lord’s Table, by His invitation, to celebrate and remember His life, death, and resurrection and His promise to save us if we would put our faith in Him alone for salvation from the consequences of your sins and the wrath of God. My encouragement to you is, as we sing the next song – maybe you don’t need to sing right now, maybe you need to pray instead while others sing – as we set up the table, as we stop for a moment, before we take the bread and cup, I want you to check your heart. Do you recognize yourself to be a sinner in need of repentance and salvation? Do you come to Jesus alone for that salvation or do you have other idols besides Him? Have you asked for and accepted forgiveness? Can you take the bread and the cup, knowing you are one of His children? Or, is there hypocrisy within you – false beliefs, other saviours that you turn to, the desire to save yourself, or secret sins that you refuse to admit or repent from? Are there people in your life you need to forgive as you’ve been forgiven, or you need to ask forgiveness from in order to be right with them and God?
You don’t need to clean yourself up to come to Jesus. You don’t need to be religious to come to Jesus. But you do need to admit yourself a sinner in need of Him as your saviour, and then get right with God in a prayer of confession. Take some time to talk to Him in song, in prayer, and in silence, before we take communion.
I’m consistently amazed how we can start studying something months ago, using commentaries written over a hundred years ago, studying a catechism written 450 years ago, based on scriptures written thousands of years ago – and how they all speak directly to our needs for today. Truly, our Lord, His Holy Spirit and “the word of God [are] living and active” (Heb 4:12).
Please open up to Matthew 7:7-11.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
A couple weeks ago, before we were interrupted by winter deciding to come all at once, we studied how God is not only the Almighty, Creator of the Universe, but also a loving Father. To quote the Heidelberg,
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.” (Q.26)
Today’s study picks up on one of the words in that answer and explains it further. It’s the word “provide”. The more I study the Heidelberg, the more I like it, especially because this is such a natural next question.
I can imagine sitting with someone and having this conversation. We talked a bit about this last time. I ask them, “Do you believe in God?”, they give some vague answer like we heard, and then they ask me, “Ok, what do you believe about God?” and, like a good boy, I give answer #26. But, what’s their natural next question? “But you’re life isn’t perfect. How can you say that God is all-powerful and all-good and all-loving, but so many of His faithful followers are going through such rough times? What about the terrible tragedies we see all the time?”
Question 27 asks that same question,
“What do you mean by the providence of God?”
How do you reconcile that God is your great provider when at the same time you are in want?
Right? We just read that Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened…. how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” So what gives? Why isn’t every Christian on earth healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable? What do you mean by saying God is your provider and you trust Him?
The answer in the Heidelberg goes as follows:
“God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”
Question 28 follows,
“What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by his providence?”
In other words, “So what?”. If the answer to, “What do you mean that ‘God provides’?” is that “everything happens according to His plan”, that doesn’t really answer why Christians aren’t healthy, wealthy, safe, and comfortable, does it? So, the next, logical question is, “How does it help you to know that all things come by the hand of God, even if some of those things are tragedies and adversity?”
The answer to 28 is that it means,
“We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love; for all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot so much as move.”
This is what it means to have faith in a God that is all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving. It means that we believe that whatever happens, whether “rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, health and sickness, riches and poverty…” they all come by the hand of a loving, faithful, wise, good, God who knows what is best – even when I don’t understand or agree with Him. In a word, it means “trust”. I go back to that line in answer 26,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
God Tickets and Stuffed Bears
This doesn’t make sense to most people, even Christians, especially Western Christians, because, just like so many before us, we equate comfort and wealth with God’s blessing. If times are good, then we must be doing things right and have enough faith – but if times are bad, then that means we did something wrong and God is either mad at us or we don’t have enough faith. But that’s absolutely NOT how God works. The Bible says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) The idea that God is only good to good people, faithful to faithful people, loving towards loving people, generous to generous people, is unbiblical, and a dangerous thought for believers to have.
Why? Because it means that our faith, our forgiveness, our peace, our joy, our provision, our hope, is in our hands. It means that our faith is transactional – that we spend our good-boy and good-girl tokens at the God store and He dispenses blessings. We treat God like one of those arcades where you play games and get tickets. You’ve been to one of those, right? Where if you do well at skee-ball, hit the right number on the spinning thing, sink enough shots in the basketball game, that it spits out tickets to spend at the little shop so you can get a prize. Sometimes we treat God like that. We think that if we do enough good deeds we’ll gain enough tickets to spend on blessings and miracles. And if God’s not giving us what we want or need, it means we don’t have enough tickets for that item so we need to try harder.
But what’s that doing to our heart? When you go to one of those arcades and look at the items, and finally find that one thing you want – the video game, the giant bear, the cool shirt – what do you immediately think? That it takes way too many tickets. They want 20,000 tickets for that bear and the skee-ball machine only spits out like 12 at a time. This place is unfair. It’s a scam. We start to think of God like that. God’s unfair. God’s asking too much. God is a scam.
Or say we do really good at the games, hit lots of jackpots, sink a tonne of baskets, and get those 20,000 tickets. When we walk up to the counter to get our prize, what are we thinking? “I’m so great. I’m such an awesome person. Look at all the work I’ve done, the good I’ve done, and wow, do I ever deserve this blessing. I’ve earned it. I’m the best. God, all I need from you is for you to exchange these good deeds for that miracle, please. Then I’ll talk to you later once I’ve built up my stash again.”
Believing God’s provision to be transactional does not lead to faith in God, dependence on God, trust in God, hope in God, believe that God’s way is best – it leads to either pride or despair. Pride that you’ve done so many wonderful things that you’ve earned all the good in your life and didn’t need Jesus at all – or despair that you will never be able to do enough good deeds to get the really nice prizes from God, because God is unfair. Both of those are terribly dangerous versions of faith – but are very popular in the world.
What’s the solution to that type of thinking? Trust. And how does God grow trust in His people? By giving us opportunities to trust Him, so that we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that we cannot be our own saviours or our own providers.
Ask, Seek, Knock & James
Many people here can attest that this is true. That, it was during times of struggle or lack that they learned the most about God’s love and provision. That, it was during times of pain and confusion that they learned the most about God’s comfort and care. That, it was during times of fear and worry that their pride was finally broken and they came to God for help and learned what it meant that He is their almighty, loving Father. Sure, there were times of anger, whining, complaining, lashing out, depression – but at some point in all that, they fell to their knees, gave up trying to control the situation, gave up believing in their own goodness and willpower, and realized that God doesn’t just love them sometimes, only when they are good, but at all times, and that He will “turn to… good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow” because His love and provision is present and active even in adversity.
The man in that video figured it out and showed it through patience, service, and faithful tithing. He could have reacted a lot of different ways – self-pity, anger, grasping every penny, threats and arguments, refusing any work that wasn’t in his own skill set – but he didn’t. He took the jobs as they came with a thankful heart, waited patiently, gave faithfully, and allowed God to be His provider. That’s how it works in the Christian life.
That’s why Jesus says in that passage in Matthew 7, “Ask… seek… knock…”. It is when we stop struggling, gathering, controlling, hoarding, fighting, and eating ashes, and finally relent and come to God, humbly realizing that He is our saviour and provider (and we are not) that He can work.
To “ask” God for something requires that we not only understand that we have a need, but a need we cannot provide for. Why would we ask for something we know we can just get for ourselves? To “seek” means to connect those prayer requests to a life of faith, seeking “first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, knowing “all these things will be added to you” as you are seeking because God knows what you need (Matthew 6:32-33). To “knock” means to persevere in that faith and in that seeking.
Why doesn’t God just answer when we “ask”? Why does He require we “seek” and “knock” as well? Because we are such slow-learning creatures. These lessons take such a long time to learn.
Consider the words of James, written to Christians spread around the Roman world, who were suffering through persecution and poverty, oppression from without and conflict and church splits within, and the temptation to give up. Turn with me there, and we’re going to jump around a bit, but I want you to see the whole argument. Start in chapter 1:2-4.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.…”
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change….
You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…..
Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful….
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” (James 1:2–4, 16–17; 4:2–3; 5:7–11; 13–18)
Remember The Prophets
I know that’s a large section of scripture, but I think it’s critically important for us to read today, because we need to understand that God is our provider and He is worthy of our trust. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God loves you where you are at right now and is more than willing to provide what you need. Not what you want, but what you need. Sometimes we don’t have because we do not ask. Sometimes we don’t have because we ask with wrong motives. Sometimes we don’t have because God is doing something special in our lives and the only way for us to become steadfast, perfect and complete in our faith, the only way for Him to build our faith-muscle, our faith-skill, is for Him to use “trials of various kinds” that require us to go through a time of testing.
In James 5:10 it says that when we get narrow-minded, near-sighted, and confused about God’s love we should look to those who came before. “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast.” In other words, we hold in high esteem those who go through tough times and come out the other side even more faithful than when they went in, right? So, when you are facing difficult times – trials, lack, fear, confusion, persecution, uncertainty – I want you to turn to two places.
First, to scripture, to remember what the lives of faithful people in the Bible looked like. Jesus was the most loving, faithful, perfect, most spiritual, most giving, person to ever live. How did His life go? Times of rest, times of testing, times of suffering, times of success, times of betrayal, and in the end, He was crucified for crimes He didn’t commit, and then rose to life in the greatest victory in history. We follow in Christ’s footsteps, do we not? So we too will also see times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection.
Consider the life of Paul. Same thing, right? A terrible sinner who hated Christians converted by a miracle to become a great missionary and faithful servant of Jesus. When he was a Christian killing Pharisee, he had power and prestige. When he became a follower of Jesus he followed in the footsteps of Christ – times of rest, testing, suffering, success, betrayal, death, and victorious resurrection. Who would make the trade from oppressor to oppressed? Paul did. Why? Paul answers this way in Philippians 3:7-8
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Consider the life of Joseph. Blessed and loved from birth as a favoured son. Given great revelations from God of the power and influence He would have. And what was God’s preparation ground for that greatness? To be hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, to be falsely accused, and spend years in prison.
Consider Job, the most righteous man on earth. His life was full of blessings. But what was God’s plan for him? The same path as Jesus and many believers. To use Job to show Satan what real faith looks like, and to teach the world a lesson about faith that would be passed on for generations. What did that look like in Job’s life? God allowed everything he had to be destroyed in a day.
What was Job’s reaction?
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (Job 1:20–22)
Those are the words of a man who understood and trusted God as his provider.
And I could keep going with names. If you know scripture, you know that this is the standard pattern for all those who are faithful to God. It is normal for God to send “trials of many kinds” to his people for our good and His glory.
But I told you that there are two places to turn. First, to scripture, and second, to other believers. Certainly, to those in this church who have experienced adversity and anxiety and who have faced it with faith and hope, because they are right here. This is one of the greatest values of small groups and home groups – which I hope you are in – because they allow you to not only share your concerns but also hear from other people who have gone through (or who are going through) similar times.
But these Christians don’t just need to be in our church, they can also be elsewhere. Like the stories on RightNow Media, or in books and movies.
And so, I want to close with a clip from a man that I admire as a faithful, godly, Christian pastor. He is a famous author who has written around 90 books that have sold millions and millions of copies. But he does something that not too many other authors do. First, a lot of his books are available free on his website, but the second one might surprise you.
That’s a man who understands the danger of losing sight that God is his provider and has set up boundaries in his own life to make sure he never forgets.
We’re back into the Heidelberg Catechism and are now in Day 9. Just a quick review before we jump into it though.
Our church, since last August, has been working out way through a teaching tool called the Heidelberg Catechism. It’s called “Heidelberg” because it was written in the 16th century by a man named Zacharias Ursinus in the city of Heidelberg, Germany, about 20 years after the death of Martin Luther. It’s called “Catechism” because it is a question and answer summary, written for churches, to teach children and new believers the basic principles of Christianity over the course of a year.
We are currently in Week 9, or Lord’s Day 9, is it’s called, and we’ve already covered a lot of ground. It began on Day 1 with the most important question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. That’s critical, right? “When it all comes down to it, when everything else is stripped away, when trouble and trial come, when you are faced with the discomforts of life and the danger of death – where do you, as a Christian, turn for hope?”
The answer was
“That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
The rest of the catechism is really an exploration of that first answer, using all manner of scriptures and creeds to explain why that’s true.
So it asks things like, “What do I need to know in order to have this hope?”, “What happened to make things go so wrong with the world?” “What is sin and why is it a problem?” And when we find out that sin leads to judgement from God and eternity in Hell, it covers topics like “How can I escape this judgment?”, “Why can’t I save myself?”, “What makes Jesus Christ the best and only answer?”
Which is the end of the first section and leads to the second, which asks question 21 and 22 on Day 7, “What is faith, and what must I believe in order to be saved?”. All of this leads to a study of what is called “The Apostle’s Creed”, the oldest and most trusted theological summary Christians have, dating back almost 2000 years.
The Apostle’s Creed is divided into three sections, God the Father and our creation, God the Son and our redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and our sanctification. This brought us to Day 8. Historically, it is on Day 8 that whoever is teaching is supposed to talk about not only those divisions, and the doctrine of the Trinity, but also a bunch of the attributes of God. That’s a tall order for one week, so I got stuck there for a few weeks – ok, a couple months – until the Christmas break.
This brings us up to now where we are about to get into Day 9 which covers the first line of the Apostles Creed, and which I think is incredibly applicable for us today.
Where Does My Help Come From?
Please open up to Psalm 121 and let’s read it together. I want you to notice, before we read, that at the top of the Psalm this is called a “Song of Ascents”. The Songs of Ascents are travelling songs meant to be sung by those who were making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. Some of these Songs of Ascents are thanksgiving songs, others laments, while others are about the beauty of God’s city and the history of God’s people. They were written to prepare the hearts of God’s people to come before Him – to face their sins and admit their need, to declare their trust in God, to share their anticipation of standing before Him, and declare to each other God’s goodness and steadfast love, even in the face of difficult times.
I think it’s appropriate that we read this one today, especially in light of the events of the past while, especially this week. I think it’s good for us to read it today.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”
Now, before we get into the question of the day, I want to show this video.
A lot of people say they “believe in God”, don’t they? We all have friends and family members that, when they are asked if they believe in God, they say they do. Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks that question as it covers the first line of the Apostle’s Creed, “What do you believe when you say: I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” That’s usually the question we don’t really get to, isn’t it? We’re almost afraid to ask, because we don’t want to start an argument or get into a debate with someone we care about, so we just leave it at “Do you believe in God?” and rarely press forward to, “Ok, what do you mean when you say you believe in God?”
Psalm 121 ties right into all of this, because the first line of the psalm is like an Old Testament version of this question. As I said, this was a travelling psalm to be sung on the way to Jerusalem for one of the annual celebrations. Picture the pilgrim having walked for miles and miles through the wilderness – there were no nice roads or walking paths in those days. He’s been walking for days, his feet are sore, his muscles ache, and his destination seems very distant. Suddenly, he sees the hills of Judah in the distance.
This is where commentators are split. Either this guy looks at the hills of Judah, knowing that he is finally close to Jerusalem, and breaks into a song of praise to the Lord for protecting him on his journey and bringing him so near the end – ooooor… he sees those hills and thinks, “Oh, great! Hills. I get to walk up great big hills now. This is where it gets really dangerous. Now I not only have to worry about wild animals and exposure but robbers and terrain and having to climb and climb all day long. How am I going to get through this?” And then breaks into the same song, saying, “These hills won’t get the best of me, because my help comes from the Lord who made every one of them.”
I sort of wish the interviewer in that video would have asked the question the way the Psalm did, “When you lift your eyes to the hills, where does your help come from?” Or, “When good times and bad times come, where do you look for who will bring you through it?” because that would have given a better answer.
The Heidelberg answers like this:
“That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and who still upholds and governs them by his eternal counsel and providence, is, for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father. In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
One thing that always impresses me as we study is how beautiful this document is.
God the Father
When Christians say they believe in God, we are making a very specific statement. As we saw, a lot of people in western society, are not very specific. This is why we spent some time talking about Special and General Revelation, which tells us that we don’t get to create a god of our own design based on whatever makes us feel good or seems right to us, but that we must believe in God the way He has revealed Himself.
If you don’t, you end up with what we saw in the video. Like that guy who said, “Yes, I believe in God, because I’m Buddhist.” That’s contradictory because Buddhists do not believe there is a God. Or, “Yes, I believe in God, but not really one that can be written down.” Or “Yes, because you gotta believe in something but I have no idea what that is.” So, then, how do you know what you believe?
As Christians, we absolutely believe that our God not only makes sense, but has told us a lot about Himself, and so it makes sense that a Biblical catechism and creed would make some very specific claims about God. As it says, a Christian believes “in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?”
What does that mean? It means that we believe that God has revealed Himself as a Father. That means He is personal. We talked a little about this on Christmas Eve when I preached on how God makes us part of His family through our faith in Jesus Christ. If you recall, I quoted Ephesians 1:3-5 which said,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…”
God reveals Himself as a Father. First, He is the eternal Father of Jesus, which we already covered in the sermon on the Trinity. And second, He is the Father of all mankind, since He is the One who created us in His image and continues to protect and guide us. When we sinned, we tried to divorce ourselves from our Father, attempting to usurp His position and make ourselves above Him and were, therefore, cast out from His family, but through Jesus are invited to be adopted back as His sons and daughters again.
That’s why Romans 8:15 says to Christians who are tempted and afraid to call out to their Father,
“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”
We are taught in scripture, in Old Testament and New, that God is our Father because He has chosen to be. In Isaiah 63:15-16, the people of God cry out to Him in distress and say,
“Look down from heaven and see, from your holy and beautiful habitation. Where are your zeal and your might? The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion are held back from me. For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.”
The Jews were always tempted to rest their hopes and prayers on the mere privilege of being descended from Abraham. Regardless of how messed up they were, they would say, “Well, Abraham is our father, so God has to bless us.” Here we see the Jews renouncing this attitude and saying that their genealogy doesn’t really matter – what matters is that God has chosen to make them His children, and it is by that relationship that they make their appeal.
When Christians say that we “believe in God” we are saying we believe in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has adopted us into His family to be His children.
God Almighty, Creator
The second thing we are saying when we say we believe in God is that God is “Almighty”. We already talked about this when we covered God’s attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnipresence, but it is worth mentioning again. The Apostles Creed begins “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth…” Jeremiah 32:17 says,
“Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.”
That’s the God we are talking about. The God who designed and upholds and governs all things. The God who is higher and wiser and bigger than all. The One who knew what would happen when He created everything, already had a plan in place, and that can use everything, no matter how terrible, no matter how difficult, no matter how much grief it brings Him or us, for our good and His glory. That’s the God we believe in. Which is why, as the Heidelberg says,
“In him I trust so completely as to have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul, and will also turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this life of sorrow. He is able to do so as almighty God, and willing also as a faithful Father.”
We covered this on Wednesday night when we talked about Jesus’ words about not being anxious because God knows what we need, right? This is why Romans 8 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (vs 28) and “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (vs 31) and “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
I love the line out of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where Mr. Beaver says that Aslan is “not… a tame lion.” At the beginning of the story, when Lucy first hears about the Great Lion Aslan (who is a Christ-figure), she gets scared and asks, “Is he safe?” and Mr. Beaver gives the answer, “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
This is the God in whom we believe and trust. He is not only the Almighty Creator, but also our Father. We do not believe in a god of our own making, for that god would be weak and useless when we needed it. Gods of our own design always fail because we know in our heart they are pretend. But the One, True God, who has revealed Himself to humanity, is real, alive, active, and powerful. He isn’t a being of our own design and is therefore not someone we can control. But since He has shown us what He is like, what He is capable of, and what kind of character He has, we can trust Him. This is the God our church believes in, so let us have faith in Him.
In what areas of your life are you struggling to believe God is not only your caring Father, but the Almighty one who can make it happen? What part of your life do you believe you must control because you don’t think God will do a good enough job? What do you need that you do not believe God cannot or will not provide? Have you shown God that you trust Him? Have you given your Father the chance to provide? Are you obeying Him, in faith, demonstrating that trust? Because He is faithful.
This is the God our church believes in, which we pray to, who provides for us, cares for us, who sent Jesus to save us. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Jesus Himself said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If you are a believer this morning, and part of His church, that includes you.
I’ve decided that I don’t want to be stuck in Day 8 anymore, so we are going to do one more attribute and then move on. But before I do that I want to give you a few tools for you to use at home to better explain what we are going through on Sunday mornings here, which will explain these attributes and even more, likely far better than I can.
The first are two books on the holiness of God that I want to recommend to you. Holiness is an important concept that I simply cannot cover in one sermon, and understanding it will radically improve your relationship with God. They are modern classics, written in contemporary language, that you can get for a pretty good deal. The first is “Holiness” by JC Ryle and the second is “The Holiness of God” by RC Sproul. The Ryle book you can get free on Monergism.com and the Sproul one you can get from Amazon, but it’s also presented as a video series on RightNow. Matt Chandler has one too, and I’m sure it’s great.
In fact, if you go to the Beckwith Baptist Church page on RightNow Media, I recently created a playlist called “Heidelberg Helps” that covers in much greater detail a lot of the topics that I’m going through right now. You can use them in small groups or in your private study time.
If you’d also like a couple of books that are great summaries of Christian Theology, then I recommend getting either (or both of) “Essential Truths of the Christian Faith” by RC Sproul, “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll, or the newest one, “Pilgrim Theology” by Michael Horton. Those get progressively longer, by the way. Essential Truths has 300 pages while Pilgrim Theology has 450. Or, if you want a good challenge, you can read one of my new favourite books, an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Only Lane and Hilary Osborne. They took a 1000 page book and condensed it to less than 300 pages.
God in Relation to Man: Righteousness
Ok, let’s finish off Day 8. God’s Holiness in relation to man meant that God was set apart from us, different, special, pure, without any spot or stain, perfectly good. But where Holiness speaks of quality, Righteousness speaks of activity. Psalm 145:17 says, “The LORD is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.” Holiness is who God is, Righteousness is what God does – His “ways”. The Hebrews word is the same as “road” or “direction”. God always goes the right way.
To be holy means God is perfect in who He is. To be righteous means God does right things. He cannot do wrong. To do wrong is counter to His nature. If God does it, it must be righteous because he can do no other. And because God is always righteous and right means He is also just. He cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness. He cannot allow injustice to go unchecked in His universe. Therefore wrong actions, lawbreakers, moral failures, injustice, must be perfectly dealt with. It is contrary to God’s nature to allow wrong things, sinful actions, or sinful inactions, to go on forever without dealing with them. He must make the wrong things right. Certainly, God can choose to be patient with unrighteousness and evil, He can choose not to punish it immediately, but because He is righteous He must punish and correct evil. And conversely, righteousness and goodness must be blessed. (Ezekiel 18:20; 1 Peter 3:14). Galatians 6:7 says it this way, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”
Condemned in Our Unrighteousness
That’s a warning to us, an admonition: That our deeds are judged by God and our sin provokes His righteous anger. Knowing this, therefore, should compel us to seek after righteousness. Part of fearing God is fearing God’s wrath, judgement, and discipline. It means recognizing that sin is another way we are separated from God. So, as humans, our problem is not only are we stained by unholiness and therefore cannot stand in the presence of God, but we have also willfully done wrong things that God the Righteous Judge must punish.
The term “Righteous” is actually a legal one, usually, used by God towards people rather than the other way around. To be righteous means to be on the right side of the law, to be unrighteous a lawbreaker. If you’re following along, then you’ll know that this is what the whole first section of Romans is all about.
Turn to Romans 2:6-11. It says
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
God is not partial to anyone. There is no race or gender or social status that he prefers. Because God is righteous His concern is whether or not you are holy or unholy, righteous or unrighteous, guilty or not guilty. But, as we learn in Romans, the problem is that everyone is guilty, right? Go a little forward to Romans 3:10-12,
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
When we read the Law of God, as in the 10 Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the rest of scripture, we realize that we are lawbreakers and stand condemned. That’s what verse 19 says,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
No one can read the Bible and not think that they are a sinner. And, as we already learned when we talked about General Revelation, even without the Bible, our own conscience condemns us. We know we are unrighteous.
Made Righteous by Grace Through Faith
So what are we to do? If the warning is that we ought to fear God because we stand guilty before the One who must punish lawbreakers, then we’re in trouble. How can we get right before this righteous Judge?
Some might think that they can just start obeying the law and be ok? But that’s not how it works, right? If I steal something or murder someone I can’t just say, “Ok, I got it out of my system. I’m good now. It’ll never happen again.” No, I need to face the consequences of my actions. Justice demands that I pay for my crime. It would be morally wrong for a judge to let me get away with murder or not pay back when I’ve stolen because I promised not to do it again.
That means that no matter how much I obey from this point on, I’m still condemned. All those Bible rules we spend so much time talking about have no power to save — only to condemn. Look at verse 20,
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
All the Law can do is show me where I’ve gone wrong and teach me what I’m supposed to do right. But it can’t save me from what I’ve already done wrong. Following rules can’t fix my unholiness or my unrighteousness.
How can someone be made righteous then? How can a sinner go from guilty to not-guilty without having to face the punishment for their lawbreaking? How can God be a righteous judge who doesn’t let anyone get away with evil, who punishes wrong, who defends the defenceless, who comes to the aid of those who are wronged, who makes everything right in the end… without sending every human being to Hell to pay for what they’ve done?
This is what almost drove Martin Luther mad. As a good catholic, a good monk, he knew that God was Holy, Righteous, Perfect, and Good. He knew that God must punish evil. And he knew that he was a sinner. The church was telling him that if he did enough good things – confession, confirmation, penance, visiting relics, prayers, service, tithing – that God would forgive him. And there’s a lot of religious today who teach the same thing. If you believe hard enough, do enough religious things, be nice, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t litter, recycle your bottles, eat your veggies, give some money to people who need it – then God will be impressed and bless your life and let you into heaven. They see faith in God as transactional – I do something good for God, God does something good for me. And if I do enough good things, then I can kind of erase the bad things and God will just overlook them.
But here’s the problem that stuck in Martin Luther’s head. What if he didn’t balance it out properly? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he forgot to confess something? What if he was supposed to do something but didn’t realize it? What if his confessions weren’t because he was really sorry for his sin, but because he was scared of being punished? Didn’t that disqualify them from even being confessions? What if he wasn’t sorry enough? What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he didn’t suffer enough? What if he enjoyed something too much? When he was a monk, Luther fasted and prayed so much that he weighed almost nothing and basically destroyed his innards for the rest of his life. Even the Augustinian monks who were known for being a very serious group– even the leader of the monastery – was telling him to chill out.
He would spend hours and hours in confession every day, pouring out everything he could think of, and then go out and do as many religious things as possible, and then come back and confess more. He never felt that he was good enough for God could ever look upon with any kind of grace or love.
But there is comfort. That Jesus Christ, through His work on the cross, has fully satisfied God’s requirements for righteousness and justice, and through faith in Him we can become righteous before God. What does that mean?
Keep reading in Romans 3:20–25,
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
That section is so critical to understanding how we can go from unrighteous to righteous in the eyes of God. If doing a bunch of good deeds cannot save us and the Law of God only has the power to shows us our guilt and unrighteousness, then what can be done? God is the perfection of righteousness, perfect in all He does, cannot do wrong, and is the source of all right and wrong. He, therefore, cannot allow anyone to get away with unrighteousness, lawlessness, moral failure. It is contrary to His nature to allow wrong things to continue and not be dealt with, to allow sin to go unpunished, to allow a wrong to go unrighted. He must make things right. That’s why the Bible says that righteousness comes from God.
So, here is God’s plan, and what saved Martin Luther’s soul. Humanity stood condemned in our unrighteousness with no way out. Then, God put Jesus Christ “forward as a propitiation”. In other words, God laid the punishment for our unrighteousness on Jesus. Something had to be done to pay for the sins. The fine needed to be paid. The jail time had to be done. The electric chair had to be sat in. Justice demands it. Every lie, theft, murder, rape, disobedience, disrespect, blasphemy, and everything else had to be made right. God’s perfect justice demands that the perfect punishment for sin must be handed out.
But who could do it? No human being could do it because every person has their own sin. The only one who could stand in the place of sinners would be one who could stand before the judge as not-guilty. So, God, Himself came. God sent His Son Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be born in human flesh, to live a perfectly righteous human life, to be perfectly obedient to God’s Law – but then to be unjustly tried as guilty, betrayed by humanity, nailed to a cross, and executed as a sinner for things He’d never done. On that cross, he not only faced the wrath of Rome and Israel but the full might of God’s wrath. Then, once He had paid the fine, done the time, he offered to trade himself for anyone who would believe in Him – regardless of who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done – “for there is no distinction”. There’s no sin that cannot be forgiven by God because of Jesus. All one must do is believe they are sinners and accept that Jesus took their punishment, died on the cross, then rose again in victory.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says it this way:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
There is no work to do, no Law to follow – just a person to believe. So, how do you know you are saved? I ask you: Do you believe that Jesus was sacrificed on your behalf, facing the justice of God, taking the punishment you deserved, paying for the sins you have committed? Do you believe Jesus did everything necessary, that “it is finished”, and there is nothing you can do to save yourself? If so, then by that faith you are declared righteous. God places your sins on Jesus, counts them as paid for, and then sees and treats you as though you had lived the same perfect life Jesus did. In God’s eyes we become as righteous as Jesus. God is just and also the justifier.
Abraham Saved by Faith
Turn to Romans 4 and I want to read what is going on there. The question that Paul is answering here is “How was Abraham, who lived before Moses and the Law, before Jesus and the Cross, saved from his sins? Was it different back then? We know Abraham wasn’t perfect, he sinned just like anyone else, so was everyone before Jesus condemned? Or did God make allowances for sin because Moses hadn’t written the law yet? If salvation comes only by faith in Jesus, then how could anyone have be saved before He came?”
The answer for Abraham is the same as for us. Abraham was justified, made righteous, by His faith in the Word of God. Start in verse 20 where it speaks of Abraham’s faith:
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. 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. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
So, the Old Testament way of salvation was the same as the New Testament way: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to God’s Word alone. Abraham was an unrighteous sinner like everyone else, yet in His grace, God chose to save him (Remember, Abraham did not choose God.) Abraham then responded to God’s invitation in faith, leaving his homeland to do what God told him to do. Throughout his life Abraham struggled with sin, making bad decisions and disobeyed God sometimes, but he always kept his faith and grew deeper with God as the years went by. It eventually culminated in his ultimate act of faith on Mount Moriah, when he believed God’s promise so much that he was willing to sacrifice the only human who could have fulfilled the promise, his son Isaac. It was an act of supreme faith.
Just as God chooses Christians out of the world, so he did with Abraham. Just as Christians cannot be justified or made righteous by obeying the law, neither was Abraham. Just as we believe in God’s Word and demonstrate that belief through obedience, so did Abraham. But what did Abraham believe?
Move back up to Romans 4:1-5,
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…”
He simply believed what God had told him. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh (John 1) and Abraham had faith in the Word of God. Abraham didn’t know the name Jesus Christ, but his salvation required a faith like ours. He was not justified by anything he did, not by works, otherwise he could have bragged that he saved himself. No, just like us, Abraham believed God’s Word, trusted that God would save Him, that God would provide, that God would bring forth the salvation of the world through his family line, and then demonstrated that faith by living a life that reflected those beliefs. He was the father of our faith.
Let me conclude with this. The admonition here is that we always keep in mind that God is right in all He does, meaning not only that He is trustworthy, but that He will make everything that has gone wrong right. He will punish sinners and fix everything that has gone wrong. It also means that for their own good, God will discipline any of his people that are headed toward sin. Therefore, we ought to take sin very seriously. We ought to pursue righteousness because Jesus said that God blesses those who do. (Matt 6:33)
But we also need to remember that even though God’s standard is absolute perfection, we cannot save ourselves by mere obedience or religious practice. The only way to be right with God is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. If you don’t believe that, then you are still in trouble, but if you do, that means that for believers, the pressure is gone. The pressure to perform has been taken away. The fear of whether or not we are good enough to get to heaven has been taken away. The worry as to whether or not God is punishing us for our sins is gone because we know Jesus took that punishment. It means knowing that you if you’ve asked forgiveness and believe in Jesus, no matter what you’ve done, how messed up you think you are, you are right with God. You have been declared righteous by God, and who has the power to reverse His decrees? No one. Jesus has done everything we need in order that you can be saved and made part of God’s kingdom, and there is nothing you can do to lose that (Rom 8).
The only question you must ask yourself when you feel like God is against you, when you feel unworthy of His love, when you are tempted to do something in order to impress Him enough to listen to you, is this: Do you believe that Jesus has done enough make you righteous before God? If the answer is yes, then rest in that, come before your Heavenly Father with confidence, and trust that Jesus work is enough.
If you’ve been following along, you know that we’re a little stuck in Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism and that a bunch of the sermons I’ve preached over the past while are actually one, long sermon divided up into more manageable pieces. It started with a quick review of the Heidelberg and the importance of theology and doctrine to our relationship with God, then moved on to talking about the attributes of God. We started with the most complicated, that being that God is Triune, and then moved into a discussion of what theologians call “General Revelation”, which is how we can know there is a God if we don’t have a Bible or prophets or anyone else to tell us – and that is through Creation and our Conscience.
That brought us to the problem of the Virtuous Pagan and showed us that General Revelation only has the power to condemn us – to show us that we are sinners and stand condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that God did not leave us condemned. Instead, God gave us not only General Revelation, but “Special Revelation”, more information about who He is, what He wants, what happened to us, and how He is going to fix the problem. He did this in a few different ways. He spoke to prophets, gave people visions, performed miracles, and inspired others to write laws, prophecies, and teachings in a book we call the Bible. And most importantly, the most important of the Special Revelations is that we get to see who God is in the person of Jesus Christ.
Over the past couple sermons, we’ve been working through some of the attributes of God that God has presented in the Special Revelation of scripture. If you recall, we are breaking these attributes down into three sections. First, God in relation to the whole world. Second, God in relation to mankind. And third, God in relation to Himself.
We’ve already covered “God in relation to the world” where we talked about His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and his Omnipresence – or that He is All-Powerful, All-Knowing, and Ever-Present. Today we are going to move on to talking about “God in relation to mankind”.
But, as I said before, it is both boring and unhelpful to simply list a bunch of attributes and read the verses from which we learn them, so we are going to further divide the discussion into more helpful categories. That way we not only see what God has said about Himself but what it means to us as an admonition (or warning), how that brings us comfort, and how we see that attribute in the life of Jesus.
I apologize for this super-quick review, but if you want to catch up, I encourage you to read or listen to the other sermons. Also, stay around for Overtime after service and ask any questions you want. My hope here is to not only give you information to help you understand God but to inspire you to pursue a deeper, consistent and more meaningful relationship with your Heavenly Father, and for that, as I said last week, it’ll mean some homework for you.
God in Relation to Man: Holiness
The first of God’s attributes in relation to mankind is His holiness. This is such a critical attribute because it helps us understand a lot about who God is and how He works. Some theologians and commentaries even call this the “chief attribute of God”. More important knowing that He is all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, or even that God is love, is that God is holy. This is an attribute we see repeated hundreds and hundreds of times in scripture.
In scripture, we hear the host of heaven saying, “Holy, holy, holy” of God in the Old Testament (Isa 6:3) and Jesus in the New (Rev 4:8). The primary meaning of the word “Holy” is to be separate, special, different, set apart. God is totally different than man, totally separate from man, because God has no sin, no spot, no stain, no darkness. He is perfect in his moral purity and completely separate from His creation. We see glimpses of His holiness in this world, but they are only reflections of Him, like seeing the sun through the clouds, or light seen from around a corner.
But occasionally in the Bible, God chooses something out from His creation and comes near to it – and that place is called “Holy”. It becomes holy because it has come in proximity to the Holy God.
Holy by Proximity
When God was creating the world, he rested on the seventh day and “made it holy” (Gen 2:3). When Moses came near the burning bush he had to remove his sandals because was now on “holy ground” (Exo 3:5). The High Priests robes and jewelry became “holy garments” because they were only used in the “Holy place”, the temple (Exodus 28). When Joshua and Israel crossed the Jordan River, they “consecrated themselves” or “made themselves holy” before they went into the “holy land” (Josh 3:5, Psalm 78:54). When David was hungry in 2 Samuel 21, the only thing he found to eat was the “bread of the Presence” or 12 loaves of “holy bread” which were only for the priests to eat (1 Sam 21:4-6). Jerusalem is called the “holy city” (Neh 11:1; Rev 21:10).
In Jerusalem was the “holy temple” (Ps 5:7) and inside the “holy temple”, separated by a huge, heavy drape in royal colours and embroidered with pictures of angels, so no one could see inside, was “most holy place” or the “holy of holies” where sat the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat, the very throne room of God on earth (Exodus 26:31-33).
The veil wasn’t just to make the room separate though, it was a form of protection. It was in the Holy of Holies that God would appear, and even then he was clouded because anyone who would see the holiness of God would die. Therefore there was a veil and the only person allowed in this holy room was the High Priest, and he could only come once per year, and that only after washing himself, putting on special clothes, burning incense so the smoke would cover his eyes, offering sacrifices to atone for his sins and the sins of the people, and bringing sacrificial blood with him. (Lev 16:2, Exo 28; Heb 9:7). It was a serious and dangerous meeting because God is so holy it is actually dangerous to us.
Consider it this way. There are a lot of things in the world today that we can take a little bit of, but too much will kill us, right? This Christmas I bought my dad what I think is a unique present for Christmas. We went to a special store in Manotick that has bags and bags of different kinds of imported ————. (Not sharing! Dad reads these blogs!) He likes it so I made him a gift-set. Then I read an article online that said too much ———– can kill people 40 and over. So, yeah, I sent my dad a potentially lethal Christmas gift.
Actually, a lot of things in this world are lethal. We can drink a glass of wine, but too much alcohol and we die. Salt makes food taste better and we need it to live, but too much can kill you. Same with water. If you drink too much water in one shot, you can die. Humans need to work in order to live and function in this world, but if we only work, all the time, giving up eating, relationships, and sleep, we’ll die.
It seems that humans need impurities because pure versions of things tend to harm or kill us. We couldn’t see or live without the sun, but if we stare at it, it’ll burn out our retinas and we’ll go blind – stay out in it too long and it’ll cook you and then give you cancer. We need air to breathe, but pure oxygen will kill us.
Sin Separates Us From God
This is why sinful humans cannot be in the presence of God, why sin separates us. God’s holiness does not mean He cannot be around sin, but that sin cannot be around God. This is a really important concept and one that a lot of people don’t understand.
Sometimes we get this view in our head that the reason that sin is a problem, and why sin separates us from God, is because our sin would somehow taint His holiness. That somehow God keeps us away because He’s afraid that if we get too close that we’ll mess Him up. Some people believe that when the Bible says that God is “too pure to look upon evil” that it means he can’t see us, can’t be near us, can’t tolerate our presence. That isn’t it at all. Not even close.
The reason that Adam and Eve were removed from God’s presence and kicked out of the Garden of Eden wasn’t merely as a punishment, and certainly so that they wouldn’t infect God, but because their sin made the presence of God lethal to them. The reason for the veil in the temple was so people who got a glimpse in wouldn’t die.
God isn’t like that pristine white couch that your grandma or your friend had that no one wants or is allowed to sit on because you’re going to get it dirty. “No, sin cannot be in the presence of God because whenever God draws near to sin, the raging inferno of His… holiness washes all sin away.” And that includes us.
Open up to Isaiah 6 and let’s read the call of Isaiah the prophet together:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”
Do you see what happened there? Isaiah has a vision of God and what is his reaction? Terror. So far all he’s seen is God’s entourage. He’s seen some angels, felt an earthquake, heard an announcement, and saw some smoke, and he is convinced he is going to die. Why? Because of his sin. And he wasn’t wrong! God hadn’t shown up yet and if He had, Isaiah would have been consumed by the holiness of God. So what does God do? He sends one of the seraphim to touch a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips, to burn away the impurity, to atone for the sin. And then Isaiah can stand in the presence of God.
That’s why no one can be in the presence of God unless their sins have been dealt with first. Just as the High Priest needed washing, clothes changing, and blood sacrifice before he could even walk into an area where there was a clouded version of the merest hint of God’s holiness and glory, so any human needs to have their sin dealt with before they could be in the presence of God. Not to protect God from us, but to protect us from God.
This is why “good people go to heaven” isn’t true. This is why “if I do more good things than bad, then I can go to heaven” doesn’t work. This is why doing religious things doesn’t get you any credit with God. This is why not everyone goes to heaven. Everyone has sinned (Rom 3:23) and therefore literally cannot withstand the presence of God. When their sin comes near the presence of holy God they will be like straw before a blast furnace, they will be utterly destroyed.
The only solution is for us to be as holy as God, without imperfection, without blemish, without sin, without any condemnation, to be as perfect as God is – otherwise we are literally toast.
But how can a human become that holy? By ourselves, we can’t. That’s why we need the blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, to atone for our sins, to wash away our sins, to cleanse us from unrighteousness. We need Jesus, the God-man, to take the entirety of God’s wrath against sin, to stand before the blast furnace of God’s holiness as our propitiation, as our sacrifice, as our stand-in. We need Jesus, the only man to ever live a perfectly holy life, to take that wrath, to die the death we should have, take the punishment we should take, pay the price we should pay, and then live again to prove He has conquered sin once and for all and has the power to not only forgive us but to make us clean to.
The Torn Veil
When Jesus was on the cross, right when He died, Matthew 27:50-51 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” At that moment, something fundamentally changed about humanity’s relationship with God. No longer would we only be able to be able to meet God behind a curtain in a human temple after a bunch of preparation and sacrifices. Now, because of Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, perfect atonement for sin, because He had done His work, there was no longer any need for a barrier between God and Man that could only be breached once per year by one special person. Jesus stood before the blast furnace of God’s holiness and wrath and through His sacrifice made a way for us to stand before God.
Turn with me to Hebrews 9:6-14. Here’s how it describes the difference between our relationship with God before Jesus and after,
“These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
Now, there is no longer a “holy of holies” where God’s Spirit dwells and which we must travel to visit. Now, everyone who believes in Jesus becomes a Temple and has the Holy of Holies inside them and carries God with them everywhere.
Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed to God for this-this way in John 17:20–23,
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
1 Corinthians 6:17-20 says it this way,
“But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.… Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”
Let me close with our admonition and comfort in knowing that God is holy.
The admonition here, the warning, is that knowing how Holy God is, and how fundamental to His nature holiness is, God’s people should be filled with reverence for God and hatred towards sin. We should not take God lightly, use His name callously, or pretend that God is like us because He is decidedly not like us. That should inform our worship and words. And we should not take sin lightly. We should be pursuing holiness in our lives, our conduct, and our words, because we know that sin put Jesus on the cross, separates us from God, and has caused every problem in our lives and this world.
1 Peter 1:14–16 says it this way,
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’”
But the comfort here is that we are not left to pursue that holiness alone. In fact, we can’t. It is The Lord Himself, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that or uncleanliness is taken away and we have the ability to pursue holiness. We can’t white-knuckle being holy. It must come from God. We must be dependent on Him (1 John 1:7).
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22–29. Listen to what God says there about what He will do and why:
“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.”
This is what Jesus did for all believers who call out to Him. This is what Jesus offers to all people who see their sin and hate it; all those who are sick of themselves, who are done trying to hide their sin or trying to impress God or others, but feel like garbage inside. This is what Jesus offers to those who know they need help beyond anything that this world has to offer; to those who feel guilty, shameful, used, worn, and afraid. He offers holiness and the ability to live a holy life in His presence.
The warning is that we must take the holiness of God seriously, that our sin condemns us, clouds us, and infects us and others through us – but the comfort is that God has offered to save us from ourselves, clean us up, and make us holy, if we are only willing to admit we are sinners, ask for his forgiveness, take ourselves off the throne of our life, and put Jesus in charge.
 ESV Study Bible (Isaiah 6:3)
 Brower, K. E. (1996). Holiness. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
As I said a couple weeks ago, working through all the things that Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism wants to go through takes a lot longer than just one week. In fact, we’ve done four sermons on Day 8 and it’s going to take us at least two more weeks to get on to Day 9. What we’re working on right now is a discussion of the Attributes of God, which is an understandably complex topic and makes me very thankful for my commentaries.
Actually, we’ve been learning about this topic for a while now. It all started back at the end of August when I preached a special sermon I entitled “Bible Reading, Prayer, & The Crucible” – which on my computer is actually called “DO your devos” – and was grounded in Psalm 119:9 which said, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.” That sermon was meant to inspire you to commit to reading, studying and praying through the Word of God more consistently to prepare you for what was to come.
With that groundwork set, I went on vacation for a few weeks hoping your heart would soften as you studied and prayed. When I came back, we had a few special weeks in a row. The first was a sermon about how to prepare for the Lord’s Supper through self-examination, the next was Volunteer Appreciation Sunday, and then came the Thanksgiving Sermon where we explored what it means that “Grace is not amazing until you know the wrath of God.”
I capped off that prep time with a sermon called “Greater Knowledge Leads to Greater Love”, which was about the importance Bible Study and how diligent exploration of God’s Word will deepen your love for and confidence in God.
Did you notice the bookends? In August we started with the bookend of the importance of reading your Bible devotionally and prayerfully, followed by some weeks to practice, the Lord’s Supper to get your heart right, a Thanksgiving message to inspire worship, and then the other bookend about not just reading your Bible, but studying theology to know God better. This was all done purposefully to slowly give you time to prepare for Day 8 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Just four weeks ago, on October 14th, I ended that final bookend sermon by saying this:
“Next week, and for the next little while, we are going to get into a section of the Heidelberg Catechism that is going to be challenging… and I want you to be prepared for it. I will try to teach it well, but I also need you to prepare yourself for it. I need you to till up the soil of your heart and be ready to listen to whatever God chooses to sow there by praying and asking God to help you learn and understand. I need you to try to appreciate the importance of these subjects and fight against the instinct to let it gloss over you because of its technicality.”
I fear many of you didn’t take my words to heart, nor have many of you heard what I’ve been saying since August. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure what to blame for the disconnect between what I’ve been trying to teach from the Bible and the practical application I’ve been asking you to make in your life. I’m confused and frustrated that what I’ve been saying and repeating for so long has been either lost, ignored, or has missed the mark.
It’s possible that I haven’t explained it well and that the sermons were confusing or boring or poorly written and you didn’t understand what I was asking you to do. If so, I ask your forgiveness. If that’s the case, please let me know so I can try something else, or come to Overtime and ask for clarification.
My Worry: Apostasy
What I’m worried about is that there are people in this church, a church which I believe loves God and His Word very much, are growing distant from Him and don’t notice. I’ve heard reports and had discussions which have told me that many people here are not even doing the very basics of daily Bible reading and prayer. It’s not that I’m frustrated that you aren’t reading systematic theologies or books from the second century. My concern is that there are too many here who neglect prayer and rarely or literally never pick up their Bible.
I worry that you have felt the Holy Spirit convict you about reading, praying, journaling, meditating – but you have repeatedly, over and over, pretended you didn’t hear Him, kept doing what you were doing before, and are now very used to living without being fed by the Word and Spirit of God, that your knowledge has shrunk, your spirit has grown cold, and your conscience has hardened, and you hardly even notice it anymore. You are used to starving your spirit and feeding on the world. You are used to being spiritually sick and the medicine of God’s Word doesn’t taste good to you anymore.
As your pastor that concerns, frustrates, and frightens me. It makes me feel like the author of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrews 5:11.
Hebrews, some commentators believe isn’t so much a letter as it is a transcription of a sermon. Here, in Hebrews 5:11 we hear the preacher, right in the middle of explaining some complicated theology about Jesus, pause his whole argument to say to his listeners,
“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:11–14)
This describes some people here today and in many churches in North America. Not everyone, but some. These are people who have been Christians for a while – years – but through neglect of their souls, neglect of reading, prayer, study, meditation, have become “dull of hearing”. And I’m not just talking to the seniors or older people, I’m talking to the teens too who were born in Christian homes, have been part of a church for well over a decade, and have sat through hundreds of sermons and classes. They “ought to be teachers” by now, but don’t even know “the basic principles… of God.”
This isn’t because you went to a bad church or because you didn’t have access to good study materials. It isn’t because you live in a country where there aren’t any Bibles. It’s not because you didn’t have time to do it or because the persecution made it dangerous to be seen with a Bible or be caught praying. It’s simply neglect. It isn’t a priority for you.
The Cost of Neglect
And that neglect is causing problems. Notice what the cost is of the neglect of your soul in this passage. It says that those who are “unskilled in the word of righteousness” are immature – they remain spiritual babies. Why? They are malnourished. When you are a baby, it is appropriate for you to nurse, to be fed only by your mother’s milk. But some people, year after year, live on nothing but milk – the basic, elementary doctrines of the faith. They never eat meat, never delve into the complexities of a deeper relationship with God.
What would you say if you saw a 10 or 15-year-old boy nursing from their mother’s breast? What if you learned they had never eaten anything else? What would that child look like? Thin, sickly, malnourished. Why? Because their mother’s milk isn’t enough for them to live on anymore. The mother can’t produce enough.
In the same way, a weekly, 30-minute sermon cannot produce all that is necessary for you to have a healthy, growing, vibrant, strong faith. And if this is all the spiritual food you get, then your soul is going to be thin, sickly, and malnourished.
And there is a cost to that. Look back at the verse. A “mature” believer, as in one who is consistently feeding themselves good, complex spiritual food, has “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”
What does that mean for someone who is immature? It means their “powers of discernment”, meaning their supernatural ability to know right and wrong, truth and lie, will be unpracticed and unable to “distinguish good from evil”.
It’s not even that neglecting the Word and prayer makes you spiritually weak and therefore an easier target for temptation, but that you won’t even see the temptation coming because your judgement is so clouded, your spiritual radar so gummed up, that you aren’t even able to discern the difference between right and wrong!
Jesus Takes This Seriously
Some of you may argue with me saying that of course, you know right and wrong. Some of you will argue that do lots of good things for the church and for other people and therefore how can I say that you are in spiritual danger or are spiritually immature. Some of you will argue that you have gone through a lot lately, are facing a lot of difficulties, and that there are lots of excuses for why you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, meditating or studying.
Keep your thumb in Hebrews 5, but please turn with me over to Revelation 2. If you have a red-letter Bible, you will notice that this section is red because these are the words of Jesus to a big group of believers meeting in the city of Ephesus. Let me read them to you, starting in verse 2.
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.”
This is a good church, full of people who are patient in suffering, disciplined in their lives, working hard to be biblical in their conduct, and have shown a lot of endurance in their faith. But read verse 4,
“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
For Jesus to “remove the lampstand” means that they would lose their status as a church and Jesus would treat them like apostates, people who only pretended to be Christians but were in fact, unbelievers. Why would He do this? Because they no longer did things out of love for God, but were just going through the motions of being a good church, and were therefore not really His people. Even though they looked good on the outside their love for Jesus was non-existent. Their private devotional life, their private prayer and study life didn’t happen, and their gathering with each other to serve and share wasn’t motivated by love. That put their church in danger of a serious judgement.
Flip over a page to Revelation 3:1 and let’s read something similar there too, written to the church in the city of Sardis.
“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”
Sounds similar, doesn’t it? They look alive, but they are dead. Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23:27-28 and said,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
What makes them hypocrites? What’s wrong with their “works”? That’s a word used in both of these passages. What “works” are those? What made Ephesus’ and Sardis’ works incomplete? Think of 1 Corinthians 13. They lacked love. Their works weren’t done because of love for God or others. They were dead works that just looked spiritual.
The Danger of Apostasy
Please understand that I’m not saying this because I’m angry with you. I’m not saying this to try to make you pay better attention to my sermons. I’m preaching to myself as much as I am to you because I’ve struggled with this too. The enemy works hard to distract us away from Bible reading, study, prayer and meditation, and he’s very good at it.
What I want you to see is that even though I’ve been preaching and preparing you for months, giving you reason after reason, resource after resource, for how you can connect with God more regularly, many of you are in the same spiritual condition that you were before I said anything. Some even worse off.
Yes, as your pastor, I find that frustrating because I wonder what I did wrong or what I could have done better to convince you, but there’s another emotion that is even greater than my frustration – and it’s fear for you. I’m scared for you.
Jesus has some serious warnings in Revelation for people who say they are Christians and do Christiany things but lack personal, private, devoted time in prayer and study. There are threats and promises made by Jesus against those that pretend – and not just the loss of the ability to discern right and wrong. If you’ve lost your thirst for God’s word, you are in real trouble. Sin is crouching at your door, Satan is prowling around you and your family, ready to devour you, but you have no spiritual armour to protect yourself, your family, your church or your neighbourhood. How can a soldier who is starving and weak, untrained and undiscerning defend themselves or anyone else? But more than that! What if your refusal to obey causes you even more harm?
Turn back to Hebrews again, this time to the next part in Hebrews 6:1. Here we read about the dangers of apostasy, the danger of pretending to be a Christian but then falling away from the faith. You are worse off than if you had never known about Jesus, (2 Peter 2:20-22).
After talking about how hard it is to teach immature believers he describes the “milk”, the elementary doctrines or basic principles that all believers should have a good handle on and which he wants to move past. It says,
“Therefore, let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.”
But listen to why it is so important to move past the “milk” and onto the “solid food”; why it is so important to do the work of personal Bible study, private prayer, and meditation. It is because those who neglect their souls, neglect growing mature in the faith, who remain babies, are in danger of being apostate.
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.”
This passage describes those who have heard the gospel but not accepted it, who know about the light of salvation but have never repented from the darkness, who have tasted what heaven is like by being around God’s people and tasted the Lord’s Supper but have never actually become a follower of Jesus, who have even experienced miracles and felt the presence of God by being part of a Christian community but have never invite the Holy Spirit into their lives, who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” in preaching and applying the wisdom to their lives but only taste little bites – never consuming the whole of God’s word to make it part of them. These people, who experience the corona, who skirt the edges of faith but never repent and commit – once they hit some kind of wall – are in danger of making their hearts so hard towards God that they may instead come to hate Him.
You’ve probably met these people. Who once came to church, sounded like Christians, but now hate God, hate the church, hate Christians. Their familiarity with the faith, which was devoid of a personal relationship with Jesus, actually became the main ingredient that caused them to hate God.
That’s the danger of coming to church, listening to sermons, calling yourself a Christian, but refusing to submit to God’s call to repentance from your sin and commitment to Bible reading, study, meditation and prayer. You may think you are a Christian when in fact you are a hypocrite who is one push away from becoming an apostate that hates God. And if you don’t think that’s possible, ask that person who left the church. Or listen to the negative language you’ve mumbled under your breath or even said aloud about God and other Christians over the past while and ask yourself what that says about how far you are from walking away for good. Why? Because you have not repented when God told you to and you have not been attending to the needs of your soul. Your faith has no roots and is being slowly choked out (Mat. 13:21-22).
The passage in Hebrews gives hope though. In verse 9 the preacher says,
“Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
I feel the exact same way. I look at you and I am “sure of better things” because I have experienced your love for God and for me. I have seen the energy you put into “serving the saints”, how much patient kindness you have shown me and the people around you. And it is my “desire” for “each one of you” to turn that energy, that “earnestness”, toward your private devotional time, your daily bible reading, your prayer life, your meditation and journaling and study.
It’s not really that hard to start because you are surrounded by all kinds of help. Use the free Our Daily Bread devotional guide, read any of my books which I can give to you for free. Watch some sermons on YouTube, subscribe to a podcast that reads or studies the Bible, There are 20,000 bible studies to go through on RightNow Media. Surely one of them will do the trick! Call up one of your elders or deacons and ask them what they do for their devotional time or to meet with you and help you design a personalized quiet time. Ask them to hold you accountable by calling you every week. Create a small group in your home dedicated to learning how to read, pray and study better.
Do what you must because the consequences of not following through in this area of your life are dire.