It’s been sort of my tradition to take time on Palm Sunday to tell the story of the history of the world, the story of salvation, from beginning to end, because I think it’s important – maybe especially during times like these – that we remember that the moment we are living in and the events we are looking at are part of a larger story, a metanarrative, that has been going on for a very long time.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
Our story begins in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Notice how I said that it’s the start of our story. Not the beginning of The Whole story. Just our part. God is eternal, existing before there ever were heavens or an earth.
So God created the universe, the stars, the planets, our world, and everything on it. And He did it in steps. As we read the creation story we see that God is imaginative, powerful, orderly, and is really enjoying His work. We don’t know everything about the beginning of time, but we do know that it did not come together by random chance – it was “Created”. Over and over again God creates and then looks at what He is doing and says that “it is good”. He likes what He sees. He made the skies, the oceans, the birds, trees, sun, moon… all of it. God, in an amazing process, formed all of creation out of nothingness… and then called it “good”.
And then, after everything else was created… He began His greatest work. God literally saved the best for last. He decided to create humanity. All of the rest of creation was a good thing… but this was going to be the best thing. God formed a man out of the dirt of the ground, like a potter lovingly moulding a clay sculpture in His own image, and then breathed life into them, life unlike any other creature had: Physical and Spiritual Life. And then He formed the woman from a part of the Man, making them complimentary equals. He bestowed upon these two beings something unique in the world… a living spirit that reflected His own. Humanity was designed to bear God’s own image, to carry His divinity with us. We are the best thing He ever made, and He loves us very much.
And He took His two favourite creations, named Adam and Eve, and put them into a wonderful garden and gave them the task to spread His glory and make more images in the form of children that would stretch from that little garden to the whole rest of the world. A whole planet of image bearers in perfect relationship with their Creator. There was endless food, total comfort, no shame, no danger, no anger, meaningful work, and perfect love. Greed wasn’t a problem, relationships weren’t a problem, sex wasn’t a problem, disease was unheard of, and best of all, these humans had the glorious privilege of walking and talking with God face to face. It was the best place ever and would only get better. But it didn’t stay that way.
Chapter 2: The Fall
Adam and Eve, with some help from the devil himself, decided that God’s plan wasn’t good enough. God had placed them where they would have everything they could ever need, but had only one rule: Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
In a world of delicious options, there was only one tree from which they weren’t allowed to eat. Can you imagine a world where there is only one bad choice? Everything else on the entire planet was a good, healthy, and satisfying. There was only one bad option.
Many have asked why God would put that tree there at all. The answer is simply this: without it, there would have been no choice. In order for His creation to have free will and the ability to love, there must be options. To make love real, there must be a way to choose not to love. To make obedience real there must be a choice not to obey. To make trust real there must be a way to show whether or not one believes God’s Word. If there is to be a real relationship between Creator and creation, rejection had to be an option.
Adam and Eve made the other choice. When given the choice to love, trust and obey, they chose not to. They chose to believe God was holding out on them. They chose to take that something they were not allowed to have, and which they had been warned would do them harm. That choice is called sin and it changed the whole of creation.
Chapter 3: Cast Out From Eden
The moment Adam and Eve decided to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, everything changed. At that moment something new entered the world called “sin”. God had warned them that everything would change, but they did it anyway. He warned them of the consequence of death coming through sin, but they did it anyway. They didn’t want only the knowledge of good, they wanted the knowledge of evil too. They knew that once they ate it they would have a special knowledge which they didn’t have before – something God didn’t want for them, which would hurt them… and they ate anyway. Before that moment they only knew “goodness” and “life”… but after they fell, they knew “good and evil and death”.
And since God is good, perfect and holy, He can’t be in relationship with evil. He has no part with evil or evil-doers. In His love He cannot let the infection of sin go untreated. In His justice He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. Now, because of their choice, He could no longer communicate face to face with His beloved people because the white-hot furnace of His holiness would utterly destroy them. All because of their decision to sin.
As stewards of the world, and since the world was created for them, the sin not only affected them but the rest of the world as well. They were the pinnacle of creation and now that creation was tainted, marred, effected – it’s like their sin bled inky blackness from them onto everything else in the universe.
Within moments of falling to temptation, we read of shame, anger, distrust, fear, blame… then weeds, toil, pain, frustration, heartache. And, as God had promised, they would now know death. You see, death was something that wasn’t a part of God’s perfect design. But every choice has a consequence, and the consequence of disobeying the law is judgement. All humanity believes in some form of justice – it’s a carryover from being made in His image. A good parent, a good society, a good God, punishes wrong. And the punishment for sin is death.
Now, that’s all bad news, right? Well, even though it was all bad news, there was one glimmer of hope– the promise of salvation to come. Even in the midst of passing His judgement, God shares the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, promising Eve that one day, Someone born of women will finally do something to reverse all of their mess. That, one day, someone would come and do battle with death and Satan (Genesis 3:15). That, though it would be bleak for a while, and the consequences were dire, God’s Gospel said there was still hope.
Chapter 4: Noah
Now, even though humanity had fallen and was now outside the Garden of Eden, it didn’t stop them from “going forth and multiplying”. Adam and Eve were having children, and their children were having children, and the world was being populated.
Not only were people multiplying, but their sin was multiplying too. People were actually getting worse. The bible says that by the time of Noah things were really grim. It says in Genesis 6:5 that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
Eight generations had gone by, and there were lots of people on the earth, and they were inventing new ways to be evil, corrupt to the core, completely disregarding their Creator and their fellow man.
The Bible says that God was grieved. He had such a great love for His people, but they had so completely turned their backs on Him and were doing such harm to each other that He was sorry that He had made them in the first place. As God, as Creator, it is His right to do whatever He wants with His creation, so He sent a flood to wipe them out, to wash away the wickedness which had gotten completely out of control.
But again we see the gospel of grace in the midst of judgement. There was a man named Noah who was Adam’s Great x8 grandson. God saved Noah and his family because they were the only family left who was listening to Him. Was Noah perfect? Did he earn salvation by being a good person? No, but He loved God and lived like God mattered. It was not that Noah was worthy to be saved – He was a sinner too. It was that Noah was the only one willing to listen to the message of salvation.
After the flood, God started overusing Noah and his family to repopulate the world again. That’s what God does. He takes an impossible situation and adds justice, creativity, grace, love, and hope. Yes, humanity would fall again. Noah didn’t make it very far out of the ark before he and his family were sinning again. But even that pointed to Jesus.
Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just wipe out all the bad people and just leave us good ones? It’s because we are all bad people! None are free from the effects of sin. Even the most righteous man on earth was not good enough to stay righteous for long. The problem of sin goes deep, very deep. Humanity has an internal problem, a depravity that goes to our very core. That needs to be dealt with. Sin isn’t just about good people who occasionally do bad things – it describes something broken inside of us that will always pull us away from God. A curse that needs to be lifted before we will even want to get right with God.
And so, God set the rainbow in the sky, promising never to flood humanity again because He was about to put His full plan into motion.
Chapter 5: Abraham
Right around the death of Noah a man named Abram was born. God’s gospel plan continues as He, in an act of amazing grace, chooses to show love to an obscure, pagan man, who neither knew Him nor followed Him. Abram wasn’t anyone special, just a guy who God decided to show love to, to give an invitation to, but what made him special was, again, like Noah, he was willing to listen to God and obey. God says, “leave your country and your people and go into a different land.” and he does.
God then makes a promise to Abram – who was then a senior citizen married to a barren wife with no children – that he would have many descendants and they would become a great nation. In fact, God promises that the whole world would be blessed because of his family line. He would give them a special place to live and would take care of them. This was such a wild promise that the moment his wife Sarai heard it, she laughed out loud. God presses forward, changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Saria’s to Sarah, and gets to work.
This was a pretty good deal for Abraham, but he never gets to see the plan fully worked out during his lifetime. That doesn’t mean God didn’t keep his promise, though. Abraham did have 8 children, each becoming the father of different people groups. His second son, Jacob, would really see God’s blessings taken to another level as his children became the 12 patriarchs of the nation of Israel. It was these twelve families that would form the political and geographic system through which the rest of God’s plan of salvation for the world would be carried out.
Chapter 6: Joseph
Now, God needs to make sure that this family is taken care of, which is where we get the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob. God, amazingly, uses the anger and jealousy of Joseph’s brothers, the terrible reality of kidnapping and slave trade, and years of wrongful imprisonment as the plan to save Jacob’s family from a terrible drought would hit the land. Most of us here know or have heard the story of Joseph.
His story was full of suffering. Though he was God’s chosen man, he went through some really tough stuff, but after a time, God raised Joseph up to a position where he would not only be able to take care of His own people but to save Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Then, in Egypt, God prepared His people for the next phase of His plan.
Chapter 7: Moses
Jacob, Joseph and their family was down in Egypt and doing fine for a couple hundred years, until a different Pharaoh came into power who didn’t know about what Joseph had done and didn’t remember the promises the previous administration had made. Instead of being thankful, he started to fear Jacob’s growing family (who were now being called “Israelites” after the new name God had called Jacob). But instead of using diplomacy or communication, he suddenly decided to force the whole nation of Israel to become the slaves of the Egyptians. They were in slavery for a very long time, generations of suffering, but still having many children.
One of these children was someone you know, a man named Moses. At exactly the right time in history, God worked some powerful miracles and used Moses as the person to lead His people out of Egypt as one, unified nation, ready to get back home to the land that God promised their father Abraham so many years ago — the “Promised land”.
Pharaoh tried to stand in the way of God’s deliverance, but after 10 plagues, he finally let them go. The final plague was another picture of God’s salvation plan, pointing to Jesus. The angel of death would come upon Egypt and the only way to be saved from the curse was to have the blood of a spotless lamb spread on the entrance of their home, and for them to hide behind that blood so death would pass them over.
But before they went to the Promised Land, God brought them to a place where He would make a covenant with them, a contractual agreement. He told them that as long as they would commit themselves to be His special people, trusting and worshipping Him alone, just like Adam and Eve were supposed to, He would take care of them. They would be victorious and well supplied.
God, in His grace, knowing that they would say “yes” to the contract, but because of their inherent sin problem would, within days, turn back to sin and start worshipping a golden calf of their own design, gave them laws to live by so they would know how to worship Him, how to care for one another, and be different from the rest of the world.
He said things like: “I am the only God, worship me alone. Don’t murder each other. Don’t steal from each other. Honour your parents.” All these rules were for their own good and intended to make sure that the relationships between Him and each other would be peaceful.
But God did something even better than the Law. He gave them a religious system by which they could temporarily deal with their sin problem and be able to approach God, sort of like they did in the Garden of Eden. Except, this would be a bloody system, full of death. Not just one lamb like during the Passover in Egypt, but many, many animals. It would culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Day of Deliverance, the most important annual celebration of the year, where the High Priest would symbolically place all of the sin of the nation onto an animal and then kill it in the place of the people. The payment for sin is always death. God has the right to destroy everyone who sins immediately, but instead, He allowed the shed-blood of an animal to stand in their place for a short period of time. It was temporary forgiveness, so they could be in a right relationship with Him – and the sacrifices went on day after day, year after year.
All of this again pointed to Jesus, the one who would come and be the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, to die in the place of sinners, making a way for us to have permanent forgiveness, restoring us back to the same relationship we had with God before the Fall.
So now, Israel was free from slavery, ready to take back the Promised Land, had a good leader in Moses, wonderful laws to protect them, God’s promise to care for them, and a system by which they could be in relationship with God… but of course, having good laws and good a religion didn’t actually fix the problem of sin. Just like the flood didn’t solve the problem of sin, making a list of rules didn’t either.
The people were still under the curse of sin; their souls still bent away from God, and so they wouldn’t and couldn’t obey the law. It wasn’t long before they turned away from the Law, their religion, and from God, and started praying to, worshipping, and putting their trust in created things instead of the Creator – even praying to and making sacrifices to wooden and stone statues of their own making.
Even after being delivered from slavery by miracles, given more miracles on their journey to the Promised Land, given a good leader in Moses, give a Law written by God Himself – emphasized with thunder and earthquakes and even more miracles – it wasn’t enough to keep them from committing more sins and evil. Plus death still existed in the world. There was more saving work that needed to be done.
Chapter 8: Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
The next chapter in history is a sort of in-between time which you can call “Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat”, and it lasted 1000 years. It was the time of the Judges, the Kings and the Prophets. In the time between the giving of the Law and the birth of Jesus the Saviour, a lot of things happened but it was really just an endless cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat.
As far as good things that happened: With God’s help they reclaimed the Promised Land, and divided it up amongst the 12 tribes. They built some great cities and became one of the richest civilizations in history, wrote Psalms and Proverbs, even took down the Tabernacle – the temporary tent of worship – and built a beautiful temple in the holy city of Jerusalem.
But there was more bad than good. They broke every law in God’s book over and over. They made idols, cheated and abused each other, broke the Sabbath, and even participated in child sacrifice. Throughout this time God kept raising up prophets to warn them about the consequences of their bad decisions, but they kept killing the prophets!
For a long time, God was the King of Israel, but eventually, they decided that they didn’t want God to be King anymore, but instead wanted to be like all the other nations and have a human king. This was like a slap in God’s face! He had always been their ruler, their Law-giver, great judge, provider, the one to keep them safe and lead their armies — and now He wasn’t good enough. God’s chosen people, the one that He picked out from among all the others, the one that He had promised Abraham would be a great nation, once they had become one, turned their backs on Him, just like all those who had come before. Just like Eden.
Most of the kings were a mess of sin and selfishness, but God in His mercy kept sending prophets to show the way back to Him. Each of the prophets would remind the nation of God’s hatred of sin, warn them of the dangers of sin, and show them the path of repentance – but most would be ignored or even attacked.
Then, since no one would listen, the prophets would keep talking about the Promised One who would finally come and end this cycle of Sin, Suffer, Repent, Repeat, once and for all. A man who would finally obey God perfectly. The One who was promised to Adam and Eve, who would come through Abraham’s tribe, who would represent mankind, but have the power to conquer evil, forgive sin and even destroy death. The coming of Jesus is spoken about in every book of the Old Testament.
This cycle went on for years… hundreds and hundreds of years… and all the while God continued to prepare the world for Jesus, raising up nations, setting the stage, showing everyone, through Israel, that there was not one person who could obey Him, not one who would worship Him rightly. The prophets would fail, the priests would fail, the kings would fail, the heroes would fail, the people would rebel… the Law condemned everyone.
Humanity was in a miserable state and needed One who would be called the Messiah, which means the “Chosen One”. He would be the one who would finally break the pattern. He would finally obey perfectly, love God and others perfectly, be the perfect prophet, perfect priest, and perfect king. He would speak only truth, bring justice to the oppressed, and lead people into a right relationship with God. He would be called the Christ, the Anointed One. And for years, Israel waited.
Chapter 9: The Messiah
God was waiting until the world was just right (Gal 4:4). Israel was at the pinnacle of their rebellion. The Romans had built roads and laws and a civilization that would allow the story of Jesus to travel throughout the world. God waited until just the right moment to send His greatest Gift – but He surprised everyone by how He did it.
Consider the irony of how Jesus entered the world. Since the beginning of time, people were waiting for this One Person to come. This would be the most important person in history, the Saviour of the world. And when He finally came… almost no one knew. When the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus, finally arrived, He didn’t come as a mighty King on a white horse leading a huge army. He didn’t come in a bolt of lightning on a mountain, with a booming voice proclaiming the Judgement of God.
He came as a baby, a helpless infant. The Son of a virgin, adopted by a poor, Galilean Carpenter. Born in a stable, laid in a feeding trough, in a tiny village. A nobody from nowhere.
No palace like King Solomon. No fanfare like King David. No blasts of fire like Elijah. The Chosen One came in so quietly that His presence went nearly unnoticed by almost all of those who were looking for Him. The Jewish scholars of the day (and today) were looking for a political leader, a military conqueror… but that’s not what they got… at least not yet.
His identity didn’t stay hidden forever. And what did God’s chosen people do when they finally found out their Messiah had come? What was humanities response to the Saviour?
Well, one of the first people to hear, when Jesus was only a couple years old, was King Herod, who immediately tried to murder Him. That would typify a lot of Jesus’ life and ministry. Rejection and suffering would be the pattern of life for the Son of God.
Today is Palm Sunday. Today is the day that, 2000 years ago, the followers of Jesus laid palm branches and their cloaks at the feet of Jesus who was riding into Jerusalem, showing Himself to be the King of the Jews and the one foretold by the prophets. He was signalling His position as God’s Anointed One, the person to whom they should submit, listen to, obey. But they were celebrating something different. They thought this meant Jesus would conquer the Roman army, overthrow their political oppressors, set them up as the most powerful kingdom in the world. They were right to celebrate, but they were wrong about how Jesus would do it. And when He didn’t do things their way… their disappointment immediately turned to rage.
I can’t say it any better than the Deacon Stephen does to the Jewish Ruling Counsel right before they killed him. Stephen was standing before the very people who were supposed to teach Israel about the coming of Jesus! They were the ones who should have been the first to know, acknowledge, and spread the good news that God had sent the Messiah!
Stephen says to them: “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet that your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous one –The Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Humanity did it again! God Himself enters the world in human form. He sends His own beloved Son, 100% God and 100% man, the only One who could save us from sin and death. The perfect one to teach us how to live, love, and worship properly. And what is our response? We condemn the Anointed One, the Messiah, the perfect Son of God, to the worst, most painful, agonizing, excruciating death imaginable… a Roman cross. God comes to save us – and we murdered God.
One would think that that would be the end of the story. Where do you go when there is no more hope left? How can an author finish a story when the hero is killed and buried before the villain is defeated? You can’t. The story must stop when the hero is dead, right?
For a moment, God’s pen lifts from the paper. The world looks bleak. There is no hope. The disciples are scattered. The Messiah is dead. The villain has won. Sin will reign forever.…
Chapter 10: The Resurrection
But our God is the greatest author of all. His pen stops for only a moment. He turns the page and begins the next chapter. The death of Jesus Christ would not be the end of the story.
Three days after Jesus dies God writes something that turns the greatest defeat in history into the climax of His Epic tale. He turns dead silence into a loud crescendo! He turns ultimate tragedy into ultimate victory!
God flips all History on its head. In the story God is writing there are no mistakes. The One who was to be our Saviour… was supposed to die. His victory came because of His death. Suddenly all of the foreshadowing in the Old Testament makes sense. There can be no greater hero than one who would give His life for others. He would be the one to crush the serpent. He would be spotless lamb whose blood would save from death. He would be the final sacrifice of that religious system. His death would be the means by which we would be saved.
The Messiah’s mission was to defeat the greatest enemy of this world. Almost everyone thought that this meant that it would be a political, military, human enemy. But God, the great author, reveals that humanity’s greatest enemy isn’t any person or nation or empire, it isn’t sickness or sadness… the greatest enemy in this world is sin. It was sin that needed to be conquered.
If sin was left unconquered, then humanity was doomed. Do you know the name of the place where God’s forgiveness and love and grace is not present – where and sin and death and wrath reign forever? It’s called Hell. Sin puts us on a one-way path to Hell with nothing to stop it. That needed to be dealt with.
Not sickness, not poverty, not gluttony or lust or abuse – not political corruption or corporate greed. All of those are a result of sin and there was only one way to deal with sin. The flood didn’t work. The list of Laws didn’t work. The bloody sacrificial system didn’t work. Good kings didn’t work. Advancing civilization didn’t work. Because none of it dealt with sin. Sin needed to be paid for, dealt with, and destroyed.
And so God, in His grace, sent His Son Jesus, and then poured out the full measure of His judgement on Jesus. We will never fully understand the suffering Jesus went through for those who would put their faith in Him. Jesus – the perfect human, the only One who did not deserve judgement, chose to take the punishment for anyone who would believe and trust in Him, so we could be restored back to God. He offers to exchange our sin for His righteousness.
But, just as in Eden, God offers a choice. God does not save everyone whether they want it or not. God does not force anyone to follow Him. Love requires choice. So God offers a choice.
God does all the heavy lifting. He shows us He exists through creation. He shows us our sin through His Law and our consciences. He shows us His plan of salvation in the scriptures. He raises up people to share his plan of salvation with us personally. Jesus does all the work of obeying God’s law, taking God’s wrath, and dying for our sins. Jesus is the ultimate hero as He walks out of the grave, conquering the greatest enemy ever. He defeats the effects of sin. He beats death. That weight of judgement that humanity had borne for thousands of years was placed on His shoulders, and He carried it, paid for it, bled for it, and then rose from the dead to show His victory over it – and then extends His nail-scarred hands to offer freedom to anyone who would believe. He makes each of us an offer.
Will you accept the risen Jesus as your only Saviour? As Romans 10:9-10 says, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Chapter 11: The Denouement
Today, we are living in the denouement, the end of the great Epic. The story has unfolded, the villain has been conquered, the Hero has been lifted high, and His people are victorious. Yes, we still see the effects of sin, because the story isn’t quite over yet. This pandemic is a reminder that the consequences of sin are terrible and lead to corruption and death. It’s a reminder that, as Romans 8 says, creation is groaning along with us, waiting to be finally freed from its bondage to corruption, eagerly awaiting our final destination and the redemption of our bodies. But, Christians know, that times like this also remind us of the hope we have in Jesus – that as wonderful as they may be, there is no politician, no doctor, no scientist, no person, that can deal with our real problem – the weight of sin in our souls. We talked about that last week.
This Epic is the greatest message that can be known, and I want you to internalize it: It tells you that you were personally designed by a loving creator who offers you hope, and purpose, and a secure future no matter what happens in this world. It reminds you that life is more than just food, money, sex, friends, and career. It tells you that your instinct towards justice and your deep desire for hope and peace and joy and freedom can be fulfilled, but only in Jesus. It tells you that your decisions today have eternal consequences. And reminds you that you do not need to fear death because death has lost its sting. – and that even your most terrible suffering can be turned into the greatest of victories. That you are worthy of and can experience divine love, the cleansing of your soul, and be made into a new person. That God will never leave you, never forsake you, and because of the work of our Hero, Jesus Christ, you can live in His presence today and forever.
This is a great story because it is a true story. People have loved it so much, and believed in the Hero so deeply, that they have died to tell it to others. I urge you, if you have not already, to accept the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, to read this story over and over in your Bible, and to tell His story, this Epic, to as many people as you can.
The song I played earlier is called “The Voice of Truth” and it’s by a Christian band called “Casting Crowns”. It’s a song that has meant a lot to me over the years – especially in my first years of being a pastor.
You see, when I was in high school I never thought in a million years that I would be a preacher. I grew up loving computers and Star Trek. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. From the moment my dad bought the family that Tandy 1000 and I got that first MS-DOS manual, I was hooked. Put it this way, when I was in high school and the library computer wasn’t working properly, I was the one who got called out of class to come and take a look at it – and only sometimes because I was the one who had broken it in the first place.
So, when God called me to ministry it was as much of a surprise to me as it was to everyone else. My call came during my first year of Bible College. I had just flunked out of computer school and needed to be registered somewhere in order to be a Summer Student at the Pulp Mill in my home town, so I registered at the Bible College my pastor went to. I only signed up for one year because I definitely wasn’t going to need a Bible degree, but within the first 3 months, once I had given my life back to Jesus and He had done some work in my heart, He told me one thing: “Stay here”.
So, I signed up for the 4 year Bachelor’s Degree program, still having no idea what I was supposed to do with my life – only knowing one thing: I won’t be a preacher. I took courses to work for a missionary organization, or be a counsellor, but nothing for preaching or teaching.
Then, after 4 years, with a Certificate, a Diploma, and a bunch of ministry experience, under my belt, I still didn’t know what to do. I asked my denominational leader, and he told me to go back to school. So I signed up for a 3 Year Master’s of Divinity Degree – still having no idea what I’d be when I grew up.
Fast forward to the last semester of my third year. I had picked my own classes, found my own mentors, volunteered and worked for the churches I wanted to, even created a new job at a big church called “media minister” where I organized the sound, video, and print ministries of the church. I’d done everything in my power to avoid preaching. Everything I did was behind the scenes. I took lots of courses for everything other than preaching… sure that my future was in ministry, but not in the pulpit. But by the last semester, I still didn’t know what God wanted me to do.
Until one day when I just gave up trying to control my future. I gave up on guiding my own way and guessing what my future would look like. Instead, I prayed a very dangerous prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m educated beyond my intelligence and abilities, and have no idea what you want. So, from this moment on, I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to everything everyone asks me to do. You’d better put some people in my way because I’m just going to say ‘yes’.”
Now, I don’t necessarily recommend that prayer, but I’ll tell you what happened. Three days later the Academic Vice President of the school called me out of the blue and said, “Al, I want you to preach at a little church that just lost their pastor.” If I hadn’t told God that I would say ‘yes’ to everything, I would have laughed him off the phone, said “No thank you, sir.” and hung up. But I committed to saying ‘yes’.
So I took the one and only sermon I had ever had to write, for the one and only class I was forced to take to pass my degree, and I preached it at that little church. I was petrified. But, they asked me back. I’m guessing they were desperate because the sermon was not good.
Then, another church called and wanted me to preach there. And I said “yes” and went. Then a little church in the middle of nowhere, a full hour away from where my family was living in Edmonton, in a little town named Gwynne Alberta, called me to be their weekly preacher. And, scared as I was… I still said “yes”.
Then I graduated, and another little church – this time in Cleveland, Ohio called me to be their full-time pastor. I didn’t want to go to the US. I didn’t want to be a solo pastor. I didn’t want to be a preacher. I wanted to serve behind the scenes, help other pastors and preachers be good at what they do – but no, God said, “No. I’m taking you out of your comfort zone, Al. I’m taking you from your churches of 1000 people and I’m putting you in a church of 25. I’m taking you out of Canada. I’m taking you from being surrounded by technology to a place where they still use an overhead projector, slides and a hymnal. And most of all, I’m taking you away from the comfort of hiding in the back, and I’m going to make you stand up and preach my word.”
And, I said yes. And here’s something a lot of people don’t know – and why that song “Voice of Truth” is so meaningful to me. I was terrified every week for over 10 years. Every week for over a decade, 50 weeks out of the year, right before service, I would be in the bathroom sick, on my knees in front of a toilet, begging God to help me. I’ve been preaching for about 16 years now, and for well over half of it – and still sometimes to this day – I’m often still so scared that I end up on my knees in the bathroom before service.
There were a lot of times I wanted to run away, quit, do something to disqualify myself so I wouldn’t be allowed to preach anymore. There were a lot of times well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) people said something that devastated me for days after the sermon. There have been times I would sit before my computer, blank cursor blinking away, fighting back tears because I didn’t know where I was going to get the strength to write one more message.
The voices in my head would say the very same things that the lyrics to the song said. The first verse is about when Peter was standing in the boat, looking out at Jesus walking on the water, wanting to walk out to Him, and then taking that step off the boat… It says, “Oh what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in, onto the crashing waves. To step out of my comfort zone into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is and He’s holding out His hand. But the waves are calling out my name and they laugh at me reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed. The waves they keep on telling me, time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win! You’ll never win!’”
I’ve heard that voice many times. I’m sure you have too.
These are trying times we are living in right now. So much fear, confusion, anguish, and uncertainty. The enemy the world is trying to fight right now isn’t some rogue nation, or terrorist organization, its invisible – a virus. It’s not happening somewhere over there in a foreign land – it’s happening right here, in our towns and cities, to people we know.
There’s literally panic in the streets as people hoard food and essentials, not knowing what will happen next. People are being told to stay in their homes, to be wary of one another, to fear strangers, to always be on guard, to change their whole lives. People are being sent home from work and are afraid of what that means for their finances because most people in Canada simply don’t have anything in their savings. Others are being forced to work in places where they can become infected – but the protective equipment is becoming scarce, their hands are dry and painfully cracking from constantly using hand-sanitizer, and the customers they serve are getting more upset, more impatient, and won’t abide by the rules.
The politicians and media and bloggers and podcasters are all in a frenzy right now, spitting out new information, ideas, numbers, explanations, guesses, and theories. The helpful ideas and statistics we hear one day end up being completely altered the next. Information and misinformation are passed along with equal authority by news agencies and well-meaning citizens, and it’s hard to know what the truth is, and how we’re really supposed to be responding.
And I’m not talking about “social distancing”, “washing your hands”, and not buying all the toilet paper at the store. I’m talking about how to respond in our hearts, our minds, our souls. We’re so worried about our bodies these days that it’s easy to forget that humans are far more than just flesh. The damage that can be done to us during this time is not merely physical. Yes, it would be bad to get COVID19, and we should take precautions – but that’s not the only thing that will cause us harm.
We are also intelligent creatures, emotional creatures, and spiritual creatures. It’s entirely possible for us to get through this pandemic without ever getting the Coronavirus, and yet still have permanent scars.
Fear can cause spiritual sickness and leave permanent scars too. Anyone who has ever experienced trauma, abuse, or has a phobia knows this. The scars aren’t external, but internal. It is easy to be afraid these days – and to let that fear dictate our lives – and for that fear to make permanent changes inside of us. It’s easy to look at the crashing waves before us, to see the upheaval in the land, have our hearts melt within us, and to form beliefs that will cripple us for a long time.
The frustration and anger we have against those who were first diagnosed, with those who spread it, with those who refused to self-isolate, who hoard and steal supplies, who are mismanaging the crisis and causing us to lose work and money, or putting people we love in danger – that anger – can start to fester, to spread to the people around you, and that bitterness can infect the people around you causing them to get bitter too. That anger can start to manifest in more permanent scars like divorce, abuse, broken friendships, racism, sexism, ageism – that don’t go away, but stick with us.
Another scar that fear creates is paranoia. You start to believe the world is out of control. The invisible virus is everywhere, and there’s no way to know who has it. The government starts cracking down with harsher controls and penalties, and it starts to feel more and more oligarchical, more oppressive. The media hypes to the max, blogs and websites start to write more conspiracies and talk more about superstition than actual healthcare. The stores shut down, work shuts down, construction shuts down, and you start to be afraid for your financial future too. Your neighbour or family member doesn’t believe it’s serious and tries to leave the house or come over for a visit… and you get scared for them, for you, for everyone.
That fear isn’t something that will go away when the pandemic subsides. That fear will stay with you, because it was there before and it’s deep-seated, firmly established inside you. All the things you were secretly thinking before starting to become reality – and you convince yourself that this pandemic isn’t the problem – it’s just the surface of all the other terrible things that need to be worried about. And it’s crippling.
Then you end up being the one on your knees in the bathroom, sick to your stomach, with a thousand voices telling you how terrible it will be, how no one can be trusted, how everything is against you, how the systems will fail, how no one is watching, no one understands, and no one cares…
Have you felt that fear? Have you felt racism and prejudice rise up in you? Anger and bitterness? Paranoia, desperation, and superstition? I’m sure you have. What can be done? How do we combat that level of fear?
The song gives us a clue. I want to read the chorus to you, “But the voice of truth tells me a different story. The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”. The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”. Out of all the voices calling out to me, I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.”
The greatest weapons we have against fear are Truth and Faith. When the voices come barreling into our head, log-jamming our mind with fear, what are we to do? Seek Truth and hold fast to Faith.
I think of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5 – turn with me there. It says,
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…”
The whole world is trying to find and use tools to fix this pandemic. Scientists and doctors are pulling out all the stops to try to end the devastating effects of COVID19. But how do we destroy the effects of fear, the stronghold that fear can take in our lives? What weapons do we have at our disposal? They are not “fleshly” weapons. Washing our hands, social distancing, cleaning the house, having a good schedule, working out, eating well, is not going to demolish the stronghold of fear in our hearts. There is not enough money, power, and political might out there to solve the problem of fear. We keep trying to put our faith in these things, but it never works. There’s always something they miss, something they didn’t see coming.
So many people sat in their homes and jobs thinking our modern society is way beyond ever having a “plague” again. Our scientists are too smart for that. Our medicine to amazing to allow for it. Our laws too well thought out. Our economy too strong to fall apart, our political leaders too experienced to ever let the whole world shut down like it did a century ago. And yet, here we are.
I’m all for science and technology. I love living in a world of medicine and antibiotics and MRI machines. I’m glad we have economists and police officers and politicians. But we have to remember that our greatest weapons against fear are not these people, their money, their systems, or their clever ideas. Our greatest weapons are Truth and Faith.
When we face all the “arguments” and “lofty opinions” out there that tell the dozens of reasons to be afraid – what can we do? We do as verse 5 says, we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”. What does that mean?
It means that when we are faced with something to be afraid of, with a news article, blog post, podcast, family member or friend, or even a thought in our head – that causes us to be afraid, to worry, to want to panic, to hide, to lash out, to take control, to get bitter – to do whatever it is you do when you’re angry. You stop, you take that thought captive, and you hold it up to the truth of Christ, and you say, “Lord Jesus, is this thought true? Does it line up with reality and logic and your Word? Does it obey you?” As Jesus said, “the Truth will set you free…” (John 8:21-32)
Turn with me to Psalm 46.
Literally, when I was writing this script, I got an emergency message on my phone. You know the one complete with lights and horns and scary noises and yellow exclamation marks that freak you out in the middle of the night? I got one of those that read, “You are at high risk of spreading COVID 19. You are required by law to self-isolate. DO NOT visit stores, family or friends.” I thought, “Dang! How does my phone know if I got it!?! What app did I download? What government spy software is on there?!” Turns out it was for “Travellers Returning to Ontario”, but I missed that part. It kind of freaked me out for a second.
What do we do when our mind says the world is out of control, no one knows what to do, terrible things are on the horizon, it’s too much for me, but no one else can do anything about it either? What do we do? Look at Psalm 46:
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’ The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah”
God is not weak, God is not distant. This Psalm says, “Remember who God really is, what God really wants, and remember His strength. Nothing is out of His control. He is All-Knowing, Ever-Present, and All-Powerful. He sees everything and everything works within his constraints and abides by His plans. Be Still, my heart, know that God – the God of hosts, the God of angel armies, is with us. He is the fortress we run to because He is strong.”
But our mind says, “But how can any of this be for the good? Maybe God is all powerful, but maybe He doesn’t care.”
Then we read the words of Romans 5:1–8. Turn there.
“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. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
We read this and remind ourselves: “I know I am loved because God actually traded His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, for me on the cross. While I was His enemy, dead in my sins, unable to do anything of value, a child of hell, God sent His Son to save me – to die for me – to take the cross for me. I don’t need to ever doubt His love.”
Plus, God promises that all the current suffering will work out for God’s glory and our good. All this suffering is building endurance and character. It’s a trial to go through, a refining fire, where, if we are wise, obedient, and faithful, we will come out the other side more hopeful, more loving, more godly than before. What is happening in the world is bad – but it’s not all bad – there is much opportunity for good! I think of the words of Mr. Rogers who reminded us that when bad things happen and we’re scared when watching the news, to “look for the helpers.”
Jesus suffered for the sins of the world, and asks believers to follow in His footsteps. So, as His followers, we don’t fear suffering, we face it knowing God is good, God is with us, and God can do amazing things with faithful people who are willing to be obedient to Him.
What got me off the floor of the bathroom each and every Sunday was not the strength of my own character or will. It wasn’t any strength I had inside me. It was because God had brought me to a place where I was utterly dependant on Him – and so I had to trust that He would allow me to do what He wanted done. If you’re a Christian today, I’m sure you can relate to God doing something similar with you. This pandemic is a way to show us how weak we are, how finite we are, and should cause us to become more dependant on Him. The only weapons we have when fear starts to take over are Truth and Faith. What’s true? And is God still God?
“God called me to preach. God’s Word has Power. It will not return void. God has given me something to say. He will give me the strength to say it. He won’t abandon me. He will be with me every step of the way. Now, all I have to do is get up and do what He has already told me to, and trust the I can because He will do it.”
Let me close with two more verses to keep in mind.
The first is 1 John 1:18,
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
One reason you might feel fear is because you think God is punishing you – or the world – and you’re worried that the only way you can fix it is to live perfectly. That’s impossible – and it’s a trap.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are an imperfect sinner, born into sin, who loves their sin, and cannot escape it because it is woven into your DNA like a curse. Even all the good deeds you do to try to impress God end up working against you because they’re not even good deeds for their own sake – but driven by fear and selfishness. But, you are right to fear punishment, because God is wrathful against sinners and anyone who has broken His law. If you’ve ever violated any part of the Bible or any part of your conscience, you are a sinner doomed to face the wrath of God. And just like if you broke the laws of Canada, you can’t just tell the judge what a great person you are most of the time and ask him to let you go. There’s no amount of good you can do to cancel out your sin.
The only way to be saved, to be free from the fear of judgement, is to believe that you are a desperate sinner in need of a great saviour. That you are utterly unable to save yourself, and that you need Jesus to take all the punishment for you. To trust in the love of God, the “perfect love” of God, that accepts you as you are, and if you ask, will place all your guilt, shame, and sin onto Jesus, so He can take the punishment for you.
Then, the moment you believe, you are saved and utterly clean and totally free. As Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, when the thought comes that God is punishing you or your family for doing something bad, you can say, “Nope. God placed all my punishment on Jesus, who took it gladly for my sake, and there is no condemnation for me anymore. This bad thing that is happening not because God is mad at me, or because I’m supposed to be punished – it’s a bad thing because there is sin in the world, and the effects of sin are evil. I’m not in heaven yet. But, I trust that God will do something good through this, so I will remain faithful to Him.”
Truth and Faith.
And the final verse I want to leave you with is one that I’ve had in mind for a couple weeks now. It’s Isaiah 26:3–4, which says,
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.”
Do you want peace at this time? Stand steadfastly in Faith on the Word of God and the Person of Jesus. Let God’s Word and the presence of Jesus Christ, be the everlasting rock beneath your feet. Turn to those spiritual weapons – prayer, reading the Bible, sharing your fears with other believers, listening to testimonies of God’s faith from biographies and online videos. Fill your mind with Truth and practice Faith – and you will break those strongholds and come out of this time stronger and more hopeful than when you went in.
During the season of Lent is the time when we fast and contemplate the sufferings of Jesus, what they teach us about Him, and what they mean to us.
Please open up to Mark 8:27-38:
“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.’
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’”
Suffering should be no surprise to Christians, but it always seems to be. Yet, Jesus was so crystal clear about what following Him would look like.
If you look at the passage today you’ll see that Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, and then Jesus starts to unpack what that really means. He describes what the rest of His life on earth would look like, preparing His followers for what would be happening during that year. He tells them of how this would be His final journey to Jerusalem, how difficult it would be, how much rejection He would face, and how the leaders of the city, even the priests and the scholars who knew God’s word best, would challenge Him, despise Him, reject Him, and ultimately work to get Him executed. But to remember that wouldn’t be the final defeat as in three days He would rise again from death.
But look at Peter’s response. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Peter, and likely the rest of the disciples – especially Judas’ Iscariot’s – concept of Christ’s mission was a very different one. Their whole picture of what it meant to follow Jesus, what that life would look like walking with Him, and how their lives would end – didn’t include suffering – especially unjust suffering. That’s what Peter was rebuking. His idea was to march into Jerusalem as a conquering hero, overthrow Rome, re-establishing Israel as a great world power, call down some angels and fire, spread health and wealth to the people, kick out all the bad rulers and install the 12 disciples as the new regents under Jesus. Victory upon victory. No place for suffering. But Jesus completely shuts down that idea.
Suffering MUST Happen
It all comes down to one, very important word in verse 31: “must”. “…he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things…” This is the issue that burns in the minds of so many. Why “must” suffering be a part of life? If Jesus is God’s Son, the Messiah, the most perfect, most loving, kindest, most sinless person in the world, you’d think He’d have a charmed life. Why “must” the King of Kings “suffer many things”? And, by extension, why should everyone who follows Him be required to take up a cross and suffer along with Him?
God is all-powerful, all good, all-knowing, all-loving – and yet He allowed His Son and all who would follow Him, to face unbelievable heartache, betrayal, and pain. It doesn’t make sense – which is why Peter had such a strong reaction. It’s the same reaction we have when the suffering gets piled on, isn’t it? It goes against our natural inclinations and causes us to question everything.
When we’re hit with sickness, death, pain, or sadness, these are all-natural questions: Why am I suffering? Am I even allowed to call this suffering in light of all the terrible things others are going through? What does it mean to suffer? What purpose does this pain have? Why am I going through this? Why is the person I love facing this? If God is all-good and all-powerful, can’t he come up with a better way? If I were God I know I could…
As we ask and read and pray, talk to some Christians, and more time passes – especially when we look back at other times of suffering – we start to understand more, but not completely. We start to see a little purpose in the suffering, some reasons behind it, some fruit that has come from it, and start to see some of God’s reasoning – but the question still lingers: “Wasn’t there a better way? How can this level of suffering be God’s perfect plan? Must it really be this way?”
The Sufferings of Christ
For the answers to these questions, we look to the life of Christ. If Jesus lived the perfect life and was perfectly loved by the Father… if Jesus is the perfect model and standard for living… if Jesus is our true teacher and friend… if His Father is our Father… if, once we are saved, His perfection is our perfection, and we are truly saved and fit for heaven… then whatever His life looked like – and whatever His follower’s life looks like – is going to give us a hint as to what is normal or normative or usual for all believers. Especially since He said,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
So, did Jesus have to suffer? Theologically speaking, one thing we know for sure – and we’ve talked about this a lot – is that Jesus’ suffering was the only way to destroy the curse of sin.
2 Corinthians 5:21 says,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Hebrews 9:22 says,
“Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
It was only through His suffering that we could be saved. Listen to Colossians 2:13–14,
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
Now turn to Romans 5:1–11,
“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. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Our peace with God comes through the shed blood of Jesus. That was the price. God said, “Those who break my law must pay the penalty of suffering and death.” Jesus said, “I will suffer and die for their sake.” And anyone who accepts that is saved.
What we don’t usually understand though is that the sufferings of Christ that led to our salvation were not just in the final week of his life. His whole life, from birth to death, was one long passion walk. Isaiah 53:3 says the Messiah would be,
“despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…”
As you wonder about your own sufferings, consider Jesus’ life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that coming to earth was an act of supreme humiliation. Jesus, who is God Almighty,
“did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”
When He was born his parents could find no good place to stay so He was born in a barn and laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). Not long after, when he was only a couple years old, Jesus barely escaped being murdered by King Herod (Matt. 2:14) and had to flee his country and live as a refugee. When He came back He lived in Nazareth, a town that some people despised (John 1:46). It is thought that his adopted father, Joseph, died when he was a young man, which is why Jesus waited until he was older to start His earthly ministry. Then when He did, His family called Him crazy and tried to shut him down (Mark 3:21). When he came back to his hometown of Nazareth to spread the gospel, they chased him out of town so they could throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). The scriptures say that for His whole life Jesus knew thirst (Matt 4:2), exhaustion (John 4:6), poverty, and homelessness (Luke 9:58). Consider Luke 19 when Jesus wanders off by Himself to a hillside to look over the city of Jerusalem, which He loved so much, and we see Him just burst into tears.
The devil tempted Him harder and more than any other person (Matt 4:1-2) and his enemies hated him more than anyone else (Heb 12:3). He was falsely accused many times of being a glutton, drunkard, blasphemer, and child of the devil (Matt 11:19, 9:3, 12:24). His friends and disciples were weak in faith and support, and often worked against him. The people around Him mostly only liked them for what they could get out of Him and then rejected Him when He wouldn’t perform. Near the end, when we see Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He is alone, forsaken by all His disciples, and so overcome with sorrow and fear that in His agony He literally sweats blood (Luke 22:44). Then He faces trials, beatings, mocking, and torture in the worst way humans have ever devised – a Roman cross.
All of this suffering, every bit, was totally undeserved. When we contemplate our own sufferings, we know that many of them are deserved, right? We mess up a relationship, get addicted to something, lash out in anger, don’t plan ahead, spend too much money, and it causes suffering in our lives. We might complain or try to spread the blame, but deep down we know it was our own fault. Theologically, we know that all sin leads to suffering – that our sinful souls, and the sin of others, even if we don’t realize it, are always getting us in trouble, pulling us from God, leading us into sin, causing ripple effects of suffering in our lives and those around us.
But Jesus never deserved any of His sufferings. None of them. He never did anything wrong. He had no sinful nature. Everything He suffered was undeserved. And every time He was given the option to take the easy way out – by Satan or circumstance – whenever there was a way to avoid suffering, He almost never took it. Why?
Because the Christ, “…the Son of Man must suffer many things…” That was His mission. To face a lifetime of suffering that only got worse and worse. As the Christ, Jesus had a job: to suffer. Suffer to bring God glory. Suffer to set an example for us. Suffer to pay for our sin debt. The perfect plan for Jesus’ life was to suffer. That was the best way for Him to bring glory to God and accomplish the mission the Father had given Him.
Hebrews 2:10 says,
“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
Hebrews 4:15–16 tells us that it is because of Jesus’ sufferings that we know that HE is on our side, that He understands what it’s like for us to go through tough times, and that allows us to know how compassionate He is towards us. It says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
But why would He do this? What did Jesus get out of it? Surely there was something He got out of it. Some payoff that made it worth all the misery, right? We feel this way, right? We’ll go through the suffering if it means that we’ll get something in the end – we get more stuff like Job, we get treasures in heaven, we get the adulation of others for being so strong, praise from our peers for facing such difficulty, more ministry opportunities because we’ve faced so much. We’re willing to suffer, but we want a payoff. What motivated Jesus?
Here’s the thing. He gained – nothing. Before His incarnation He had everything. He is God. Perfect relationship with the Father, the worship of angels, all power, all glory, everything was already His. So why suffer?
Turn to Isaiah 53:2-12.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”
This is why we sing “Amazing Grace”. Jesus gained nothing through His suffering. But it is through His suffering that we were saved. Romans 6:23 that
“the wages [the payment] of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Why did Jesus suffer? The Great Judge of the Universe demanded justice. Sinners must be punished. Now, this is something we all agree with. Even the most liberal person in the world agrees with this. If someone commits a crime, our God-given internal sense of justice demands that it be made right. And we inherently know that the punishment must fit the crime. If someone steals a candy bar from a corner store and the judge gives them the death penalty, something inside us cries out injustice. If someone rapes and murders and tortures a dozen families with young children – and the judge gives them a $5 fine and sends them on their way, that same feeling arises and we know that injustice has been done. If someone hurts us or someone we love, our heart always cries out for justice. Why? Because we are creatures made in God’s image and we have an inherent need for justice.
Now, I ask you – having this sense of justice in you – what should the penalty be for breaking God’s law? Think about this for a moment.
Two people are brutally murdered. One of them is a terrible person. He’s been a thief, murderer, drug dealer, liar, and cheat for 70 years. He’s fathered a dozen children from a dozen women, and abused and neglect all of them. In his time he’s corrupted hundreds of people, destroyed the lives of hundreds more.
The other person is a 6-year-old girl, friend to everyone, her mother’s beloved only child, and the apple of her father’s eye. She’s smart, pretty, kind, generous, and sweet. Everyone who knows her loves her, and she lights up every room she’s in.
Now, if these two people – the terrible man and the little girl – were murdered in the same way, at the same time, should the murder receive the same punishment? Our inclination is to say no, right? The purity, innocence, loveliness, specialness, and potential of the little girl makes us want a greater penalty for her murder than the terrible man’s. Why?
Because something inside of us knows that the more special, beautiful, and innocent, something is – the more it should be protected, and the greater tragedy it is that it was taken.
Now I ask you – how much more does this matter when the offence is against a perfectly holy, perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly beautiful, perfectly majestic, God? If we believe the penalty for sin must be increased in proportion to the offence – then it only makes sense that rebelling against the Law of God, the Word of God, the Person of God, and the Presence of God, by squandering all that He offered us, preferring sin and self, and turning into His enemies – should require quite a punishment, right?
Seeing the devastation that sin has caused in our own lives and world, makes us angry. How much more wrath does God have against sin? Jesus took that wrath for you. Jesus faced that suffering for you. Galatians 3:13 says,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”
I want you to contemplate this for a time this Lent. That suffering is part of God’s plan, and that it’s not the exception. The world hates this message. They refuse to believe that suffering has value and they run from it. They refuse to follow a suffering Saviour or listen to a God who tells them that the best plan for their life is one that includes suffering. That’s why 1 Corinthians 1:18 says,
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is because of our faith in God’s perfect plan, which includes suffering, that Christians believe Romans 8:28 which 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.”
Our feelings betray us, our hearts give out, our bodies long for release, but when we are Christians, our spirits can know – even in the midst of suffering – that God can be trusted. Is there a better way? If there was, that’s what God would have done. Jesus demonstrates and the Bible teaches that none of our sufferings, no matter how terrible, will be forgotten or go to waste. They all have a purpose. God is not cruel, He is compassionate and merciful.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. Consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Afraid, overwhelmed, weeping, sweating blood, not wanting to face the cross. His body was falling apart. Just like us, He wanted escape, release, freedom from suffering, for some other way. Jesus knows how we feel. But what did He say? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42) He turned His suffering over to the Father.
That’s all we can do. Tell God that it hurts, that we wish it could be different, but then say, “But I trust you. And I’ll keep going into your will. ” I think of the words of Job in 13:15,
“Though he slay me, I will hope in him; yet I will argue my ways to his face.”
These are the words of a faithful man. Regardless of suffering, my hope is in God. I’ll keep bringing all these things to Him, keep pouring my heart out, even arguing – but in the end, I will trust that God knows what He’s doing. He will punish those who have wronged me. He will restore all that was taken from me. He will see all the things I’ve done that others have overlooked. He will strengthen me when I’m weak and let me take another step and face another day. He will raise me if I’m humble, give wisdom when I need it, establish and hold me fast because He is my foundation. My suffering has value, and God is perfect in Justice. My salvation is assured, and I will wait for the Lord.
This is how it worked for Jesus, Paul and all the Apostles, and all those who call themselves followers of Jesus. Your suffering is not the exception – it’s the rule. Every step you take carrying that cross has value, though neither you nor anyone else may see it. And God has promised that He will use it for His Glory and your good. That’s a guarantee.
At this time of Lent, and in your daily suffering, look to Jesus and talk to Jesus.
We’re headed into the Easter season. This week we celebrated Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Tuesday as it’s sometimes called, followed by Ash Wednesday, the official start of the season of Lent, something Christians have been observing for hundreds of years, dating back before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Traditionally, this has been a time of fasting and prayer – when Christians avoid certain foods or meals so they can take that time to talk to God and contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ instead. These days, modern believers have expanded the definition of “fasting” to include almost anything that we find pleasurable or distracting, like TV, internet, desserts, video games, or chocolate. The idea is to remove something we like and replace it with something we like better. To consider the habits of our life, mortify the sins that have cropped up, think less of ourselves, and more about Jesus by setting aside time, energy and effort to concentrate on our spiritual lives.
This isn’t easy, especially when most of us aren’t fans of religion, don’t like denying ourselves the things we want, and live in a hyper-consumer driven culture.
Does anyone remember when the TV signal used to shut off every night? I remember when I was a kid staying up late at night and then the TV channel I was watching would say, “This concludes our broadcast day”, play the national anthem, and then just put up a test pattern until the next morning. Do you remember having to wait for Saturday morning to watch cartoons? What about setting your VCR to record a show you wanted to see because it would be on at a certain time, only once, and then it was gone forever?
That’s not the world we live in anymore. TV is available 24 hours a day. All our favourite sources of media are now “on-demand” whenever we want them. If you like crossword puzzles, you used to have to buy a book of them or wait until the newspaper came the next day – but now, you can fire up the iPad and do as many crossword puzzles as you like!
And our culture doesn’t help. Every week seems to have another holiday, birthday, anniversary, or special day of some kind. Every store has a sale something we want. Every day there’s another “must-see” concert, game, or movie. Everything is always hyped to the max, making us constantly feel like we’re always missing out on something.
This is all terribly bad for our hearts and spirits. Living in a constant state of distraction, never feeling satisfied, always feeling like we deserve a reward, is bad for us. Our spirits cry out for silence, meditation, confession, prayer, solitude – but the moment we try to give them what they need, we remember something we have to do, someone asks for something, we run out of milk and eggs, we remember there’s a sale somewhere, the car needs gas and the gas station has a good points program that’s only for today, another episode of our show is available or there’s a new movie premiering that night, our phone dings to tell us someone wants to chat, or needs an answer, or has scheduled a meeting for us, or reminds us of the thing we were supposed to be doing.
It’s very hard on our spirits to live in that state, and it will inevitably cause damage to our souls – we start to spiritually starve to death. We go from thing to thing, distraction to distraction, event to event, job to job, feeling hollow. We may get enough sleep and eat our veggies, enjoy our work, and have a generally happy life – but something deep inside feels hollow, empty – like part of us is starving and there’s nothing we can do to feed it.
Starving for God
Christians should understand this and know why it’s happening. Turn with me to Psalm 63 and consider the words of David when he was living as a refugee in the wildernesses and deserts of Judah, far from his throne, far from the Tabernacle, running away, hungry, thirsty, attacked, afraid, hunted by his own family and people.
“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” (Psalm 63:1–8)
He may have felt physical hunger, thirst, and fatigue, but as a man of God he knew that his real problem, the real danger, wasn’t lack of food or weariness of his body – it was the weariness of his soul. His complaint wasn’t that God wasn’t around, but that he missed God’s special presence in the Tabernacle, in corporate worship, in hearing the prayers and singing praises with God’s people, in meeting God in a unique way in the sanctuary. Being driven from the regular times of worship, sacrifice, songs, covenants, the reading of God’s word, was causing his soul to starve – so in the wilderness, he prays alone, sings alone, meditates alone, and declares that it is God alone – despite missing the trappings of religion – that would be his spiritual sustenance.
Have you ever experienced spiritual starvation? The spiritual atrophy that comes from the neglect of the care of your soul.
There’s a line in the Lord of the Rings movies that often comes to my mind. After years, even decades, of living with the One Ring in his pocket, it’s power having extended his life far beyond normal, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf,
“I feel old, Gandalf. I know I don’t look it, but I’m beginning to feel it in my heart. I feel thin. Sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Have you ever felt that way? I know I have.
If we are not careful, the many wonderful things that our homes, town, nation, and modern life have to offer will actually work against us. You’ve likely heard the term “empty calories”, right? It describes food that taste amazing – like pop, candy, or fast foods that are full of fat, sugar, and salt, but contribute nothing to the health and wellbeing of our bodies. No vitamins, mineral, protein – just food that tastes good on the tongue, fills the belly, but actually starves the body. A lot of our modern life is like that, but for the soul. It takes time, feels good while doing it, has a semblance of meaning, relationship, depth – but is actually starving our souls.
1 Peter 2:11 says it this way,
“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”
1 John 2:15-17 says this,
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.”
The Bible tells us over and over that the satisfaction we seek deep in our souls cannot be found in anything this world has to offer. Instead, these things we spend so much time, energy, money, and attention on, wage war against our soul, killing our joy, and then they “pass away” – like empty calories.
Jesus said to those who are hungry for real, spiritual food,
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35).
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Psalm 107:9 says to those who are yearning for more than this world has to offer,
“For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
At the very end of his book, the prophet Habakkuk, after hearing God’s voice, says that no matter what is happening around him, his connection to God is what will sustain Him.
“Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17–18)
Jesus’ disciples were often worried about eating and food and money and safety – to the point of being so distracted that they could neither hear nor understand Jesus’ teaching. In John 4:31–34 the disciples came to Jesus with some food, urging Him to eat because he had gone many hours without food. He responded to them,
“‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’”
As Jesus said,
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
The Apostle Paul understood this better than most. When looking back at the totality of his life before he met Jesus, said,
“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 and be found in him….” (Phil. 3:8–11)
This world has many wonderful things to offer, but as Christians, we must be so careful about how we treat them. Food and drink are wonderful gifts from God, but gluttony and addiction are a prison. Sexual pleasure is a wonderful gift from God, but outside of God’s control, it causes devastation and heartache. Parties and celebrations are a wonderful gift from God, but drunkenness and debauchery lead to the destruction of your life and happiness. Work and education are wonderful gifts from God, but workaholism, anxiety, and elitism destroy relationships. Having money, wealth, comfort, and safety are wonderful gifts from God – but laziness, selfishness, the belief that your stuff will protect you or make you happy, or refusing to obey God for fear of losing it, will drive you to misery. Hobbies and movies and video games are wonderful gifts from God, but choosing a fantasy world over reality, or ignoring your friends, family, and self-care for the sake of that fantasy, poisons your soul. Social media and the internet are wonderful gifts from God that have great potential to build people up – but we all know that they are also rife with temptations that destroy lives.
It is during the season of Lent that Christians are invited to examine these things, to do an inventory of our lives, to finally listen to the outcry of our hearts and decide to feed our souls the good food of God’s word and the presence of Jesus Christ.
The only way we are going to be able to see the ways that we are being fooled and manipulated by the enemy of our souls is to purposefully give ourselves to what the church fathers have called the spiritual disciplines.
Consider our study of Jesus cleansing the Temple in John 2 and how 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that since the resurrection of Jesus, God’s people, you, me, and those who worship at this church, are now the Temples of the Holy Spirit in which God dwells. If you are a Christian, then God has made His home in your heart, in your soul, and has placed His Holy Spirit within you as a seal of your salvation and to knit you together with Him. You have the Holy of Holies inside of you.
Turn with me to Ephesians 4:17–32.
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
There are some who need to hear this today, but cannot hear it because the corruption of the world has deafened their ears and darkened their souls. Their minds have grown futile, their understanding darkened, they are alienated from God because of the hardness of their heart. Some who hear this are on the edge. You want to hear God, you want your mind renewed, you want to worship with purity and joy, but there are corruption and impurity in you that continuously leads you away from Jesus and towards sin.
But here’s the problem – you may not even know it. Sometimes the things that Paul describes here come so naturally, are so ingrained in us, that we don’t even know we’re doing them. We don’t even see it. Falsehood replaces some truths because the little white lies make our lives easier. We are angry, and sin in our anger, but we don’t even realize we’re angry. We steal like a thief, but we don’t acknowledge it because it’s from the government or big corporations or because it’s something small and no one will notice. We go to work and care for our families, but somewhere in us is a refusal to share with people in need because they don’t deserve it, or because there might be less for us. We participate in “corrupting talk” like coarse jokes, swearing, sexual innuendo, double-entendres, gossip, mockery, slander, but we don’t even notice it because it’s such a part of our vocabulary, or because we do anonymously online.
What the Bible is saying here is that we need to do an act of will where we, as Christians, “put off the old self” and “put on the new self”. How? Through obedience. Through spiritual discipline. Through fasting, prayer, and study. By asking God to look into our hearts and see how our lives have been corrupted “through deceitful desires” and how we have given an opportunity to the devil to do us harm. By asking God what way you have allowed the enemy a foothold in your life, home, and church.
I read the words of the 17th-century puritan pastor Richard Baxter this week and it gave me pause. He wrote this specifically to pastors, but I think there’s a message here for everyone who desires to do the will of God.
“The Enemy hath a special eye upon you. You shall have his most subtle insinuations and incessant solicitations and violent assaults. As wise and learned as you are, take heed to yourselves lest he outwit you. The devil is a greater scholar than you are and a nimbler disputant. He can transform himself into an angel of light to deceive you. He will get within you and trip you up by the heels before you are aware. He will play the juggler with you undiscerned, and cheat you of your faith and innocence, and you shall not know that you have lost them. He will make you the very instrument of your own ruin.” (Richard Baxter, “The Reformed Pastor”, Nisbet, 1850, p.85)
How can we know if we have corrupted our souls with sins we can’t see, crippled our personal worship, or let false gods or false ideas worm their way into our hearts, lives, spirits, relationships, and church? The only way is to ask Jesus what He thinks of the conditions of our souls, and then sit quietly and listen for an answer. And that takes time, effort, energy, humility, and careful attention.
But the good news is that it is never, ever too late. The Good Father is always on the lookout for the prodigal son and daughter. The Good Shepherd is always looking for His Lost Sheep. He will always accept you when you decide to get right with Him – and will help you grow closer to Him when you ask. He will do the work, but you must let Him by giving Him permission and room to work. I encourage you to consider cutting some things out of your life for the sake of fasting, praying, and meditating on the condition of your soul during Lent.
Let me close today with the words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea, because I think it’s appropriate. Turn with me to Revelation 3:14–22,
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation. I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
Please open up to John 3:1–21.
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’”
What is a Pharisee?
If you recall, last week we covered the passage just before this one that acts as a sort of introduction to the next section of the Gospel. It’s a sort of paragraph header in the midst of the chapter division that comes through the sign miracles, meant to key us into seeing a change in perspective, but not really a change in theme or signs.
Jesus has taken the torch from His forerunner John the Baptist, has inaugurated His kingdom at the Wedding in Cana, and has cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover. While He was there, the Jews demanded a sign, but Jesus refused them – and went on to perform other signs for those around Jerusalem who weren’t demanding it of Him. It was a pretty substantial kickoff to His earthly ministry and we’ve talked a lot about it.
Last week John, the author of the gospel tells us that though a lot of people believed in Jesus, Jesus didn’t believe in them, because “he himself knew what was in man”. We covered that a lot last week, but we need to remember it as we enter into the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is introduced as a “man of the Pharisees… a ruler of the Jews.” The Pharisees were known as the “separated ones”. Not that they isolated themselves from others, but that they were extremely zealous for ritual and religion and considered themselves better than everyone else. They followed the Mosaic Law to a ridiculous degree, even adding 613 of their own laws and regulations on top of it to make it even more stringent.
For example, God had written into the 10 Commandments that no one was supposed to break the Sabbath, right? Work 6 days, and then set aside the seventh day for rest and worship. The Pharisees heard this and came up with 39 extra rules so that no one would accidentally break the Sabbath – and Jesus broke them all the time. In John 5:10 Jesus heals a lame man and tells him to pick up his bed and walk home. The Pharisees were upset because they had made a law saying no one was allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath. In John 9:16 Jesus heals a blind man by mixing dirt and spit. This broke the Pharisaical law about not making mixtures. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a disabled woman who was bent-over for eighteen years. The Pharisees were angry because he had broken the law about not straightening a deformed person’s body – and maybe even the one where they weren’t allowed to untie knots. And these rules got weird. For example, they were allowed to eat an egg that had been laid on the Sabbath – but only if they killed the chicken who laid it the next day for violating the Sabbath.
At the time, there were about 6000 Pharisees around. They were mostly middle-class people and had a great influence on the common people because the Pharisees not only made up these crazy laws but enforced them. If they saw you tie your shoe or even grab a bit of grain to eat as a snack, they would get you publically embarrassed, punished, and maybe even kicked out of your synagogue.
But Nicodemus wasn’t just a regular Pharisee, he was a “ruler of the Jews”. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, their 71 members “Supreme Court”. Rome had given them civil and criminal jurisdiction over people. They weren’t allowed to use capital punishment (as we learn from Jesus’ trial and crucifixion) but they were the most powerful group in the whole of Judaism.
You can begin to see why this man came to Jesus after dark. Jesus had been causing trouble in the Temple and defied the Sanhedrin, but had also shown Himself to be a powerful miracle worker and teacher. Nicodemus was curious but cautious. His whole life, and likely going back generations, he had known only the strictness of religion as the way to please God – and here stands a powerful Rabbi, teaching things that seem contradictory to everything he holds dear – but is also able to do amazing miracles. How could this be?
There are a lot of people like Nicodemus today. People who think they have it all figured out, who have worldly power and influence, who have (what they believe to be) a rock-solid understanding of reality, of spirituality, of how life works. Whether its atheism, deism, spiritualism, some other religion, or a version of Christianity that they grew up with or have created in their own head, their brain-cement is set. If you ask them the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” they’ll give you some kind of answer. It may be nihilism or some version of karma. It might be self-actualization or pseudo-spirituality. It might be traditionalism or moralism or humanism. Whatever it is, they’ve got it all figured out – right up until they hear about Jesus.
Many people here today either suffer from or have recovered from this. You have your own version of God. You have your own version of Jesus. You have your own version of how life, and work, and church works. You have your own rules about how marriage and family works. You may use the same words as people around you, but they have wildly different meanings.
For example, if I said the word “submission”, it would conjure up a certain picture in your mind. What does it mean to be a submissive Christian? Who are Christians supposed to submit to? James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves to God.” Everyone is on board with that. But what about Ephesians 5:21 which says we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Does your definition of “submission” extend to submitting to the people around you today? What about the next verse in Ephesians 5:22 which says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Wives, does your submission to God, submission to Jesus, extend to humble submission to your husbands? Husbands, do you understand how to respond to that submission, by, as verse 25 says “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”?
And further, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 says Christians are to,
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…”.
Does your submission to God extend to all the laws of the land and those who have been elected to government or positions of authority above you? Ephesians 6:5-8 tells us to submit to our employer and work for them as we would work for Jesus. Does your submission to God include humble submission to your boss?
And further, Hebrews 13:17 tells the church to,
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Does your submission to God include humble submission to the church leadership and eldership?
Pretty much everyone here today says they believe the Bible and want to do what God says – but most people here also have a different interpretation of who God is, what God wants, what God said, and how far they are willing to go in that obedience.
Pretty much everyone here would say they agree that “submission” to God’s will is important to them. If I asked for a show of hands as to who is willing to submit their lives to God’s will and God’s word, I would see a lot of hands.
Here’s the thing: The Pharisee would have raised his hand. And every single person in our church, every single person in Jerusalem, would have said that there was no one better at submitting to God than Nicodemus – everyone except Jesus. Why? Because regardless of how confident he was, how popular he was, how much affirmation he received from other people, how deep his traditions went, and how powerful his influence was, his understanding of God’s will and priorities was totally out of whack. And his understanding of “submission” was radically different than God’s.
He prayed loudly in the streets, tithed with trumpets, and lorded his power over people to force them to be like him. But God wanted him to pray in his closets, give secretly, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly” with Him. (Matt 6; Mic 6:6-8) The Pharisees weren’t humbly submitting to God and holding up a high standard for God’s people to follow. They were proudly, arrogantly, willfully, though perhaps unwittingly, destroying their religion and driving a wedge between God and His people.
Consider Jesus’ woes in Matthew 23. One said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15) Everyone they converted to their version of the faith wasn’t closer to God – they were closer to Hell. Jesus spent a lot of His ministry untying the knots the Pharisees had wrapped the people in.
Jesus Knows Nicodemus
The Pharisees had hundreds and hundreds of laws that were designed to please God and make them “separate” and better and holier than everyone else, and all kinds of people were patting Nicodemus on the back for how knowledgeable and spiritual he was. And all these laws did was “separate” Him from God. And I’m convinced that He felt it. I think that’s why he walked up to Jesus that night. Jesus had a connection to God that Nicodemus longed for, but had never been able to achieve through a lifetime of Pharisaism. It reminds me a lot of the story of Martin Luther.
As Nicodemus walks up to Jesus, Jesus knows exactly what’s on his heart. Jesus knows why Nicodemus came. He knows his past, his preconceptions, his confusion, and his greatest need. Remember, Jesus “[knows what is] in man” (2:25)
Nicodemus opens with “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (3:2) I don’t know who the “we” is but it could be either him invoking his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, or that he was perhaps sent by a few curious Pharisees to see what was so special about Jesus. He’s respectful, even acknowledging him as a Rabbi, a teacher, who is clearly connected to God. That’s what brought him out that night. How could Jesus, the one who overturned tables in the temple and drove out the money-changers, who defied the Sanhedrin and then scorned them with His words, teach and perform miracles with such obvious spiritual power. No one in the Jewish ruling class had this kind of power, and none of them taught with such conviction and authority. What made Jesus different? What gave Him this connection?
Jesus cuts to the chase. Nicodemus wants access to this kind of power, conviction, authority, and relationship with God. Jesus answers His question. You want to know what it takes? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’” (3:3)
Have you ever sat in a conversation with two people who obviously knew way, way more than you about something, or who had spent a lot of time together, and the longer they talked, the more jargon they used, the more they finished each other’s sentences, the more shorthand and half-stories they mounted up, the less you understood – but you knew that they were 100% understanding one another? That’s sort of what was happening here. They were using rabbinical shorthand.
Jesus cut to the chase and answered the question that Nicodemus hadn’t even asked yet. “Nicodemus, I know what you want – and you need to know that it requires a complete spiritual transformation, a total regeneration that can only come by the power of God. You need to reject everything you think you know about religion and God and the path to salvation – all of the outward things you think are right, all the hypocritical rules, all the grasping at power – everything you have been thinking up until this point needs to be dumped out and you need to realize that the change you are seeking, the power you are seeking, the connection to God you are seeking, the salvation from the wrath of God that you fear deep in your heart, only comes if you are “born again” (or “born from above”). It is only produced by God doing something inside of you – not by anything you can do yourself.”
Now, remember Nicodemus isn’t dumb. The question that he asks next sounds dumb, but it’s not. It’s how rabbis talked. Nicodemus totally gets what Jesus is saying and responds with, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (3:4). It’s not that Nicodemus misunderstood what Jesus was saying, it was that Nicodemus knew exactly what Jesus was saying but had no idea how he was supposed to start his whole life over again. Jesus had just told him that everything he thought he knew about God, all the ways he’d been trying to achieve holiness and salvation, all the good works and religion, all the self-denial, were utterly futile, and now he didn’t know what to do. What he was really saying is, “How can I possibly start over now? I’m old, set in my ways, a public figure, an important member of the Sanhedrin. Doing what you say would cost me – everything. My own group would turn against me. I would be removed from my own Synagogue and kicked out of the Temple. If I believe what you say, my life is over. How can I begin again now? I’d have to start from scratch, with nothing.”
Jesus’ response is to say, “Yes. It will cost you everything. You don’t have the power to do this. No one does. It must come from above.” “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5–8)
“You don’t know how to do this anymore than you can predict where the wind will blow next. All of the things you’ve been trying to do are human efforts, fleshly works. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that if you have a spiritual problem you need a spiritual solution. You’re powerless against sin, not connecting with God, can’t get rid of your guilt, can’t teach with power, totally misunderstand what God wants. How can you be surprised that no human effort can fix this? A spiritual problem need a spiritual solution! You cannot be fit for the Kingdom of God unless you are utterly changed from the inside out.
This reminds me of another of Jesus’ woes to the Pharisees in Matthew 23. He says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.” (Matthew 23:25–26)
The solution to your problems isn’t more work, more elbow grease, more good works, more rules – it’s submission to God’s Will, God’s Way, God’s Spirit, and allowing Him to do the work in your heart that you cannot.
When Jesus said, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus knew Jesus was talking Ezekiel 36:25.
Turn with me to Ezekiel 36:22 and let’s read the context. Notice that it is God who does the saving, and notice especially verse 25.
“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 I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. 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.”
Who does the work? God. Who does the cleansing? God. Who does the saving? God. Who does the washing? God. Who removes the heart of stone and replaces it with a soft heart of flesh? God. Who gives the Spirit to convict, encourage, strengthen, and help His people obey these ever-so precious “rules” the Pharisees were so concerned about? God.
This world is ripe with self-help books and inspirational blogs and Instagram posts telling you how to fix your soul, life, marriage, family, finances, guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, work, and church. And they’re 99.99% wrong.
Jesus is so clear here. The only way to be saved is not through willpower, education, politics, religion or finding your own path to God – it is submitting to Jesus and asking the Spirit of God to fix your heart. The only way to have a good marriage is to submit to God and allowing the Spirit of God to change your heart and cause you to love your spouse with the love of Jesus. The only way to be a good citizen in a land as confused as ours is by wholly submitting to the Spirit of God for hope and guidance. The only way to be blessed through your work, and have your work be a blessing to others, is if you completely turn it over to God, submit every job to Jesus as your boss, and give your employer the respect God requires of you – even if you don’t feel like it.
The only way to be a godly church, grow into a godly church, reconcile our relationships, to see the schemes of the devil for what they are and be the church that Jesus wants us to be, is not to try to arrest control from Him for ourselves, or start up a zillion ministries, or to keep one foot out the door in case something goes wrong, or ignore problems, or tighten our financial fists – but to wholly submit ourselves, our church, our plans, our ministries, to God’s Spirit and God’s Word. Salvation has never been a “reward for human works”. We must realize that whatever we do in the flesh is going to be of no account, and ultimately harmful, but whatever is done by the Spirit – by prayer, by study, by humility, by submission – will produce fruit.
Let’s close out this section of the story by turning back to John 3:9. What’s Nicodemus’ response?
“Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’”
John MacArthur once wrote,
“People have always stumbled over the simplicity of salvation.”
And I would add that people have always stumbled over the simplicity of the whole Christian life. We are forever trying to complicate things, when God keeps trying to simplify it.
We are presented with a problem – in our heart, in our relationships, in our work, or in our church – and we immediately make it complicated. We make calendars, plans, committees, appointments, lists and more lists. We run far and wide, googling our hearts out, amassing books and articles and videos and counsellors. We jump ahead with emails and phone calls and travel plans and requests for money. We take out loans and get credit cards.
Before it even crosses our mind to pray and seek God’s will, we’ve already done 40 things to help the situation – and then we hit our knees and tell God to bless what we’ve come up with.
That’s not how it works. It’s actually very simple.
Stop. Pray. Wait. Read scripture. Pray. Wait. Talk to a mature Christian. Pray. Wait. Go to church and worship and listen. Go to the prayer meeting and pray and listen. Go to small group and learn, and pray, and talk, and listen.
We’ve talked many times about “the ordinary means of grace”, about how unexciting, uncool, but how profoundly simple and effective they are. Prayer and Fasting to cleanse the soul and connect to God. Obediently attending church so you can hear the Word of God and connect to fellow believers. Being baptized and attending the baptisms of the people in your church so you can be mutually encouraged and show your commitment to Christ and one another. Take the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of what your salvation cost, how much Jesus loves you, and as a reminder to get right with those who you’ve sinned against or who have sinned against you. Meet in each other’s homes regularly for times of celebration and support, and visit the sick and needy. Meet with your spiritual elders for training and teaching and wisdom.
The Christian life isn’t complicated and so many of our spiritual problems are solved by submitting to these simple things regularly and obediently.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, John MacArthur, Pg 53.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
 The Gospel According to Jesus, MacArthur, Pg 56.
Please turn to John 2:1–12 and let’s read it together.
“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’
Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.”
The First Sign Ripples Out
This is the very first “sign” of the seven miraculous signs of the Gospel of John. John calls them “signs” because they are not meant to stand alone, but to point to something greater. Like a road sign that points to a city or a store, the miracles of Jesus aren’t singular events for one person at one time but are meant to be a big arrow pointing us to something special about Jesus, His mission, His character, and His person.
When you’re reading the Gospel of John it’s quite helpful to use these miracles as sort of chapter divisions. As I’ve said before, there are more ways to divide up the book because it’s such an intricate tapestry of stories and themes, but using the signs is perhaps the most straightforward. Let me tell you what I mean:
This first sign, the first miracle Jesus ever performed, was Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. It’s rich with symbolism. It is an inaugural miracle not only displaying God’s mercy to the people who ran out of wine but as a way for Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth and tell us something special about Himself.
Two key phrases to look at here are when Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come” and at the end when it says Jesus “manifested his glory” and his “disciples believed”.
In the Gospel of John, the “hour” always refers to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and glorification when he would receive his true position and sit at God’s right hand. The hour where He accomplishes His greatest work in being an atoning death for all who believe, conquering death by resurrection, and then claiming victory in His ascension and giving of the Holy Spirit. But at this point in His ministry, especially since most people didn’t understand what the Messiah was really going to be like, it wasn’t the right time for Him to reveal Himself openly as Israel’s Messiah. He was telling His mother in no uncertain terms that her timeline was not His, that she didn’t have the right to demand things of Him, and that He was going about His heavenly Father’s business, not hers. Her response is to give control of the situation over to Him, “Do whatever He tells you.” and to step back.
After all, this was only the “third day” of His ministry. He’d gone about 10 Kilometers out of Nazareth, had just gotten the baton from John the Baptist, hadn’t gathered all the apostles yet, and had some things to do. But there He stands, His mother having requested help, the servants waiting for a command, the wedding party embarrassed… and He acts out of grace. But he takes that seemingly small miracle and makes it something huge. At that moment, by God’s appointment and His power, He uses that miracle to inaugurate His Kingdom in a very special way.
And that first sign ripples out all the way to chapter 4:42 – because in this first sign Jesus “manifested His glory” or “displayed” or “showed who He really is by demonstrating His sovereignty over the whole of the material universe and nature itself.” And that power, that demonstration, ripples out. Because Jesus didn’t just make wine – He showed people a “sign” of who He really is.
Wine is a powerful biblical symbol representing things like joy, happiness, conversion, and life itself. It was used in Jewish worship rituals and given as a sacrificial offering to God. It represented God’s covenant with Israel, which He would withhold for disobedience. It was served at times of celebration and to cheer hearts, and given to help the weak and sick as a source of healing and life.
Israel at the time of Jesus was, in a sense, all out of wine and only had dirty water left over. There was no celebration in the land because they were under great oppression from Rome and their religion had been almost thoroughly corrupted by the oppression of the Pharisees and the rest of the wicked Sanhedrin. For Israel, just like the wedding guests, the wine had run out, and all they were left with was dirty water. They needed a miracle.
And so, in this first miracle, Jesus inaugurates the His kingdom, declares his intention, and shows His power, by making wine. He is the wine-giver, the celebration maker, the life bringer, the healer of bodies and souls. But, in a way very typical of Jesus, this multidimensional, world-changing miracle was done in a very small place with very few people. He’s in the town of Cana, at a private party, and only a few disciples. It was a small inauguration but it rippled out.
Consider that Jesus’ next act was to cleanse the temple in Jerusalem. From little Cana to big Jerusalem. Jesus has just inaugurated His Kingdom, turned dirty water into choice wine, and comes into the temple as a warrior prince, defending His father’s castle, demanding they remove the corruption from His kingdom. Just as He had miraculously turned a bunch of dirty washbasins into the best wine anyone had ever tasted, He would also miraculously remove the corruption of sin from people’s hearts and flood it with His own presence and power, so everyone could see what real prayer, real worship, real faith looks like. Just as He purified the water, so He would purify His People and their worship.
Then in chapter 3, Jesus meets Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher of Israel, and says that the only way people can be part of His newly inaugurated Kingdom is to be miraculously born again. The Pharisee thought it had to do with obedience and strictness to the law – and Jesus says that’s impossible – and that the change must be far more dramatic. More than simply going through religious motions, a person’s whole being must be radically transformed. He says, “The only way to please God, the only way to enter His Kingdom is if you are completely renewed, reborn, changed from within, born of water and the spirit.”
Just as Jesus turned ordinary water into the best of wine, miraculously overcoming the laws of nature, so He would use His power to cause people to be reborn from worldly beings into spiritual beings. He would make the impossible possible. Just as it’s impossible to convince people that dirty water is amazing wine, so it is impossible for a dirty, corrupt soul to please God. No matter how much you stir or heat or cool or add to that dirty water – it’s going to taste like dirty water. No matter how many good deeds or religious actions you do, no matter how many donations you make or volunteer hours you work, no matter how bad you feel about your wrong or how much you try to ignore it, you’ll never make your soul palatable to God. You need a miracle of transformation.
And so, just like Jesus made dirty water into the best wine, so He takes dead spirits and corrupt souls, and makes them alive, and good, and holy, and acceptable to God. He takes sinners and makes them saints. How? It says at the end of the story with Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that any of the cursed people who looked upon it would be saved from the poisonous snakes, so anyone who would look upon the Christ who was lifted on the cross for their salvation would be saved. They would turn from water to wine the moment they looked to Christ for salvation.
Then, in 3:22-36 the miracle ripples from Cana to Jerusalem to all of Judea. Jesus is on the Judean countryside John the Baptist declares Jesus to be the source of eternal life. Just as the wine was used for ceremony and sacrifice, celebration and healing, and became a symbol of a good and blessed life – so Jesus would show Himself to be the perfected source of sacrifice, celebration, healing, and eternal life. Jesus was the life-giving wine-maker.
Then the ripples of the first miracle move out further, from the town of Cana in Galilee to the big city of Jerusalem, to the whole of the province of Judea, to world of unbelievers as represented by Samaria. And the similarities of the story of the woman at the well and the wedding in Cana are too obvious not to be a thematic echo of the first story.
Consider that both stories start with needing a drink and have water in jars. The first takes place at a wedding, the other is about a woman with many weddings and was currently living with someone out of wedlock. For those at the wedding Jesus provides wine, showing He is the life-giver, and for the Samaritan woman who came for water at the well, He says He is Living Water. At the wedding, He says, “My hour has not yet come” and then inaugurates His Kingdom but to the woman at the well He fully declares Himself to be the Messiah. At the wedding the disciples see the sign and believe, at the well, the Samaritans hear the gospel and believe.
The first four chapters of the Gospel of John all point back to that first sign, and use story after story, interaction after interaction to show Jesus declaring Himself to be the saviour, showing His power, inaugurating the coming of the kingdom of God, and then spreading that kingdom from a few people to the city, to the province, to the world. From insiders, like the few disciples and Jesus’ mother, to the outsiders like Pharisees and Samaritans.
So many people get caught up in arguments about what kind of wine Jesus made and how alcoholic it was (or wasn’t). They get caught up on Jesus calling his mother “woman” and wondering if Jesus was being rude to her or not – He wasn’t. They get caught up on these minor details that they completely miss what the “sign”, the “miracle” was pointing to! That Jesus is the King, Healer, Life-Giver, Reason for Celebration, and Lamb of God who’s precious blood will be poured out as a sacrifice for people who wouldn’t understand, consumed by people who don’t deserve it, just as that unique and amazing wine Jesus made was poured out to the unsuspecting wedding guests in an act of grace.
There are two points I would like to pull out of this story as an application today.
The first is that things like this are why you need to study your bible. Not just read it devotionally, not just pick out favourite verses, not stick in your favourite books, but to actually study your Bibles. Stories like this one are like onions where you see the first layer and think you understand what’s going on – but then as you connect the story to the Old Testament, the sacrificial system, the imagery of wine, the timing of the story, the locations within, the author’s intention and themes – then the story really comes to life and starts to teach you about Jesus.
It’s one thing to know that Jesus is gracious enough to provide wine to people who needed it, it’s another to understand that this whole section is about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, the promise of Eternal Life, of the picture of Jesus as not only the wine-giver but the sacrificial wine itself. Of watching that miracle rippling out from town to city to province to the world, and thereby seeing that Jesus’ love isn’t merely for the individuals at the party, or the few disciples that saw and believed – but his love extends to those who do not understand what He did, who drank the best wine not knowing where it came from. It extends to the Jewish people who rejected Him, to the Pharisees who kept challenging Him and made themselves His enemies, and then that to every other person in the world.
He gave His new-wine, His blood, His gift of eternal life to ordinary tradesmen, to his neighbours and friends, to the self-righteous hypocrites, the social rejects, the ones who worship wrong and reject His laws, those steeped in sexual-immorality, the abused, the anguished, the ones who don’t even understand how God or love or sacrifice works. He gives that wine, that grace, that love, that living water, the fruits of His sacrifice, to everyone.
But you can’t see all that unless you study!
Second, I want you to notice that this story speaks to us today.
Consider how this story should inspire us to celebrate our connection to Jesus and His love for us. Dirty water to wine, Repentance to Faith, being confronted by our sin and then offered forgiveness and eternal life from the hands of Jesus, should cause us to celebrate. When life is dark or difficult, the knowledge being part of Jesus’ Kingdom because He chose you from the beginning of time, is something to be thankful for. Knowing He is victorious and has destroyed death is always and ever something to motivate worship. When you are down or sad or afraid, take a minute to consider this story from John.
Jesus loved the disciples enough to show them His glory. Has Jesus shown you His glory? In your life have you witnessed His power?
Jesus loved the wedding guests by providing that which they did not deserve at a quality that astounded them. Have you seen Jesus’ hand of provision giving you undeserved grace? Have you ever gotten something from Jesus that was of such quality, such a gift, that you know it was a miracle? During difficult times, it’s helpful to recall the list of things Jesus has done in the past – for His people and for you.
Jesus loved His mother by reminding her that everything happens by His will and on His timeline. Has Jesus ever set you straight and told you to be patient? Have you ever jumped the gun on His will and ended up regretting it? Sometimes the love of God is shown in making us wait, or sternly reminding us to trust His will.
Jesus loved the Pharisee who kept making excuses and arguments by telling Him the truth and refusing to compromise. Jesus is the way, truth, and life, and no one comes to the Father except through Him. The Pharisee made excuses, and Jesus told him there was only one way. Have you been trying to argue with Jesus about how you should get into heaven, how He should operate in this world, how the church should go, how your future should be? Is He loving you right now by reminding you that He is Lord, He is the Way, He is the wine-maker, the life-giver, the living-water, and you are not? Is He showing you love by demanding you submit to Him and Him alone?
Jesus loved the woman at the well by – well, everything. He spoke to her when custom said not to. He indulged her arguments. He gently confronted her sin. He acknowledged her pain and fear. He worked with her wrong religious beliefs. He gave her forgiveness when, maybe, the whole community, and certainly a Jewish rabbi, wouldn’t. Then He used her, the social reject, as His vessel to carry his Living Water, His New Wine, to a whole bunch of people from her neighbourhood, changing their lives forever. All in the span of a few hours!
Has Jesus been confronting your sin, your wrong beliefs, your pain, and telling you to submit to Him as saviour and Lord, to forgive and be forgiven? Has He been gently reminding you of His love, entering into your pain, sitting through your arguments, telling you the truth, and then inviting you to give it all to Him? Has He shown you grace and is now offering to use you, one who went from dirty water to new wine, to help carry His gospel to your friends?
There’s a lot going on in this story – but it doesn’t just stay on the page. How is Jesus using this story in your life today? He’s still the wine-maker, the living-water, the grace-giver, for you today. My prayer is that you would discover Him in His word, in your prayers, and in your service to His Kingdom.
Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Cana. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 405). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.